Korea, Malaysia, Canada and France are playing off in pool B at the Pahang Hockey Champions Challenge 1 in Kuantan. Now we will take a closer look at these teams.
KOREA - current world ranking: 7
Korea enter the Champions Challenge 1 tournament as the continental champions of Asia, a title that they claimed on Malaysian soil last year thanks to victory over India in the final of the Asia Cup in Ipoh. A repeat of that success at the event in Kuantan would not only seal a place at the elite Champions Trophy in 2016, but would also boost Korean confidence ahead of this summer’s Rabobank Hockey World Cup in The Hague, Netherlands. The side, coached by Shin Seok Kyo, showed signs of good form at the recent Sultan Azlan Shah tournament, claiming three wins, one draw and one defeat in the famous invitational event. Notably, the Koreans faced two of their Champions Challenge Pool B rivals at the event, comfortably defeating Canada 3-0 before earning a 2-2 draw with host nation Malaysia. The defeat came at the hands of tournament champions Australia, with the world number 1 ranked side running out 5-1 winners. Korea have been the runners-up in each of their three appearances (2003, 2005 and 2012) in the Champions Challenge 1, with a first place finish very much the target in Kuantan. The Korean squad contains the most international experience out of all of the teams competing in Kuantan, with only five players having played less than 100 games for their country. The 18 member team have a combined total of almost 2400 international appearances, which is an average of over 130 caps per player. Four players have surpassed the 200 caps mark - You Hyo Sik, Yoon Sung Hoon, Hong Eun Seong and Jang Jong Hyun. Lee Nam Yong, another member of the 200 club, was forced to withdraw from the tournament through injury, being replaced by Cho Suk Hoon.
MALAYSIA - current world ranking: 13
Like pool B rivals Korea, host nation Malaysia will be using the Champions Challenge 1 event as a key element of their preparation for the upcoming Rabobank Hockey World Cup in The Hague, Netherlands. A successful campaign in front of their passionate home fans in Kuantan could be the springboard to even greater accomplishments in Europe later this year. The team is coached by former Malaysian international Muhammad Dhaarma Raj, who stepped up from coaching the men’s U-21 team following the recent departure of South Africa’s Paul Revington. The new coach has made a successful start to his reign, guiding the team to a second place finish behind Australia, the current world number 1 ranked team, at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in March. The Malaysia side selected for the Champions Challenge 1 is crammed full of experience, with five players – Selvaraju Sandrakasi, Shahrun Abdullah, Mohamad Sukri Abdul Mutalib, Aslan Misron and goalkeeper Subramiam Kumar – having made more than 200 international appearances. With well over 320 caps, Malaysia captain Aslan Misron has made more international appearances than any other individual competing in this event.
CANADA - current world ranking: 16
Canada return to Malaysia for the second time in two months, following their participation in March’s Sultan Azlan Shah Cup invitational tournament. The team secured a fourth place finish at that event, their best on record, although defeats against fellow Pool B rivals Korea (3-0) and Malaysia (3-1) suggests that they will have to further raise their game if they are going to improve on their 6th place finish at the 2012 Champions Challenge 1 in Quilmes, Argentina. The squad selected by head coach Anthony Farry contains three players named in the 2013 Pan American Elite Team, with ace defender Scott Tupper being joined by strikers Matthew Guest and Mark Pearson on the 16-strong shortlist which recognises Pan American hockey’s most impressive performers. Tupper (170+ caps) and Pearson (140+) are two of five players who have made more than 100 international appearances for Canada, with Philip Wright (130+), Richard Hildreth (110+) and David Jameson (190+) also having surpassed the milestone. Defender Benjamin Martin is expected to make his 50th international appearance during the tournament in Kuantan.
FRANCE - current world ranking: 17
France, coached by legendary national team player Frederic Soyez, are a team very much on the up. The side produced an outstanding performance on home soil at the Hockey World League Round 2 tournament in St. Germain last year where they finished second behind Belgium, defeating fellow Champions Challenge 1 competitors Canada and Poland to snatch four wins from their five matches. They also claimed silver at the EuroHockey Championship II, sealing promotion to the elite tier EuroHockey Championship for 2015. Perhaps the most telling evidence of a change in French fortunes came at the Hero Hockey Junior World Cup in New Delhi late last year, when the young guns defied all expectations to reach the tournament final before losing out to Germany. Ten players from that hugely successful junior squad have been named in the senior team for Kuantan, including 18 year old Cristoforo Peters-Deutz, the tournament’s youngest player, and Hugo Genestet, brother of fellow squad members Tom and Martin. France are more than capable of punching above their weight in Kuantan, with a shot at the medals certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.