After a three-year hiatus, the National Under 21 Tournament gets underway on Tuesday at the Taman Daya Hockey Stadium in Johor Baru.
Having last played hosts to the Junior World Cup in 2009, the tournament venue still holds the majestic aura as workers and members of the organizing committee put in last minute touches to ensure that the eight teams participating will not face any glitches.
For the next six days, some 160 players will display their skills, some eager to show the coaches of the Project 2013 Squad that they are good enough to be given a shot in the training squad while three players from this tournament will be selected into the National Under 18 squad that will participate in the Asian Hockey Federation Under 18 Tournament that commences in Singapore on Sunday.
The eight teams have been placed in two groups with Johor, Pahang, Negri Sembilan and Selangor in Group A while Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and Perak are in Group B.
The top two teams in each group will qualify for the semi finals and from the look from the team lists, Johor and Negri Sembilan are the favourites from Group A while Kuala Lumpur and Malacca have the edge in Group B.
One distinctive feature of the Under 21 tournament is the emergence of “new” coaches in the likes of former internationals K. Enbaraj (Kuala Lumpur), Chua Boon Huat (Malacca) and Chairil Anwar Abul Aziz (Johor).
“We have a relatively untested team here and will take it one match at a time. Every point counts in the group stage and we just cannot afford to make mistakes,” said Enbaraj.
“It is nice to be able to handle the team by myself as it’s a learning curve for me as I have been the assistant coach of many a team. But as I said I am still learning and hope to help my team during the course of the tournament with my experience.”
For Chairil Anwar, being hosts does not mean that they will be favourites for the crown.
“We had only one week of training and that too not with the full side as many players were involved with Sipma or the MSSM tournaments,” said the 39 year old Chairil who last represented Malaysia in the 2002 Busan Asian Games where Malaysia won a bronze medal after edging Pakistan on strokes.
“But I am familiar with many of the players as they played in the MSN/PHJ team in the junior hockey league.
“It will be tough but negotiating the preliminary round is the initial target I have set for the team.”
While both Enbaraj and Chairil have had the privilege of coaching some teams, for Chua Boon Huat, this is the first time that he will take charge of the team.
“It is not easy for me as I am still learning but I am fortunate that I have several talented youngsters in the team” said Chua.
“Will I take coaching seriously? Well I have not given much serious thought to it but so far it has been an interesting proposition and I am enjoying every minute of it.”
Fixtures - Tuesday, June 14
(All matches at Taman Daya Hockey Stadium)
Johor v Pahang - Pitch 1
Kuala Lumpur v Penang - Pitch 2
Negri Sembilan v Selangor - Pitch 1
Malacca v Perak - Pitch 2