'Aussies at HWL Final to prove we can mix with the best'

Australia captain Mark Knowles. AP Photo/Mal Fairclough, File

Australia might be the defending champions of both the men's World Cup as well as the World League -- whose Final in Bhubaneswar this year brings together the top eight qualified teams for next year's edition of the World Cup -- but coach Colin Batch isn't inclined to believe his team start as favourites ahead of their Hockey World League (HWL) Final opener against India on December 1.

"I think any one of the eight teams can win it," says Batch. "It's difficult to consistently win tournaments these days because of the quality of the opposition. You need a little bit of luck along the way. Sometimes your quarter-final opponent can be a team that's out of form, [sometimes] you meet a team that's the best in the competition and that means you get knocked out."

Batch, who agrees that his players' familiarity with Indian conditions since their victorious World Cup campaign in Delhi in 2010 and five Hockey India League (HIL) campaigns will stand them in good stead when fronting up in Bhubaneswar, says the key to Australian success has simply been the level of preparation. "Part of that is preparation and knowing what your team is capable of, and also the opposition," he says. "Australia has had a good history of doing that. The team that we take to India is a balance between some older players and some young players. We are out there to improve ourselves and also to prove that we can mix it with the best teams and have some success along the way."

Batch has coached the national teams of Belgium and New Zealand in the past, and believes that India's decision to stick with foreign coaches in recent years is a "difficult" one that every nation has to take. "The best coach at any given time might be a good tactical coach or a coach that teaches good technical side of the game or one that might bring the whole team together," he says. "I don't think there's any pattern there -- India have gone for a foreign coach because it has obviously worked for them. Other times, they might need a home-based coach. It keeps changing, and there's no pattern for Australia, because we've had good-quality coaches throughout the decades."

Batch has prior experience with the Australian team too -- and it is an emotional connect with what he dubs an "important time for Australian sport" -- as an assistant coach to Barry Dancer at the 2004 Athens Olympics. "It was a long-awaited Olympic gold medal for Australia -- we had been runners-up three times, and three-times bronze medallists," he says. "It's always an expectation to do well, and we had some expectations on us. It was not an easy tournament for us. We had a draw against Argentina in the round matches and we lost to Netherlands. But we got to the semi-finals and we played a very good semi-final against Spain and then played well in the final against Holland. They say it's critical to play your best hockey at the right time and we were able to do that in that tournament."

Australia have warmed up for the HWL Final -- where they are grouped together with India, England and Germany in the pool stages -- with comprehensive wins over New Zealand, Pakistan and Japan on their way to gold at the International Festival of Hockey tournament in Victoria, with all five top scorers being from the host team. The team Batch will be bringing to India is one he hopes will showcase the traditional depth associated with Australian hockey.

"We don't get the same level of competition that European clubs have, but we have good focused players, generally they are well-conditioned and have a good knowledge of the game," he says, before counting out some players to look forward to other than captain Mark Knowles. "We've got Eddie Ockenden, who will be playing his 300th game in India. He's been around a long time and performed very well at World Cups and Olympic Games. Aran Zalewski has also played in India ... Jack Whetton, all exciting players. Matt Dawson and Jeremy Hayward, played in Holland as well and in HIL. There's a lot that they know about Holland and India already, and they'll all look forward to this journey and what India has to offer."