Colourful nod to heritage is Kookaburras' secret weapon at the World Cup

Australian hockey players wearing their first jersey at a training session in Bhubaneswar. Hockey Australia

The Australian men's hockey team put in one final training session at the Kalinga Stadium on Monday morning, on the eve of their second league match of the Hockey World Cup 2018, but it's unlikely a passerby would have guessed so.

That's because nearly no one on the turf was in a recognizable uniform. Few sporting colours are as synonymous with a country's sporting tradition and accomplishment as the green and gold of Australia. They are also the colour of domination courtesy the country's incredible success across sports over the years. The Australian hockey jersey is no different, and the bicep-baring sleeveless Guernsey cut only adds to the intimidation factor.

Instead of an army in green and gold though, players were decked in a kaleidoscope of colours: magpie black and white, harlequin red blue, black and yellow, stark white, maroon and sky blue. And also jersey styles: form-fitted jerseys and baggy T-shirts, cutoff sleeves and puffy ones, round collars and V-necks and popped collars.

This wasn't a brewing act of indiscipline, but rather a ritual of homage meant to be performed on just this one occasion this World Cup. "Our purpose is to honour the past and inspire the future through our love of hockey. So all these boys are wearing the club shirts of their junior days or from the country towns of where they came from in Australia," says Brian Fitzpatrick, the high performance coach with the Australian team.

Which is why 20-year-old Tim Brand, scorer of the decisive goal in Australia's 2-1 win against Ireland in their tournament opener, was in the black-and-white stripes of Sydney's Ryde Hockey Club where he began his career in hockey and why defender Corey Weyer was in the canary yellow of the Gold Coast's Labrador Hockey Club. Flynn Ogilvie was in the red, yellow and blue of the University of Woolongong hockey club where he is a medical student. "[Defender] Matthew Dawson is in white. He's from Newcastle. That's a regional town in New South Wales," says Fitzpatrick.

There are representatives from not just the big cities but from tiny towns too. Dylan Wotherspoon, in the red, white and black of the Redbacks hockey club from the town of Murwillumbah, New South Wales. "The Redbacks [named after a venomous spider] have all of three teams. They are probably the smallest hockey clubs," says Fitzpatrick. Captain Aran Zalewski, in a modest dark-green vest, represents small-town Australia too. The shirt bears his original team number -- 7 -- although Zalewski has taped a brown strip in front of that in order to represent 17, his number in the Kookaburras. "That's his jersey from Margaret River [population: 4,400]. He learned his hockey there but he had to move to Perth to get better opportunities. But he has never forgotten where he came from. He goes back to work with the juniors. Putting back to their own community," says Fitzpatrick.

Which is what Monday's club jersey tradition, which has been in place for two years now, is all about. "You need to respect where you came from," says Fitzpatrick. "When we wear these jerseys we are trying to be mindful of and thankful all the players and coaches and people who helped us in our junior years," he says.

That nod to heritage is essential to Australian hockey, says Fitzpatrick who also has a role as the culture coach of Australia. "Every new player gets his shirt handed to him by a former member of the Kookaburras, and we always invite former players to our games," he says. Until recently one of the tasks expected of players, he says, was to prepare a presentation on former Kookaburras, comprising interviews and video documentation and use it as inspiration ahead of tournaments.

These days players are expected to use their own stories as inspiration. "We had our players talk about three things at team meetings. We want them to speak about the hardships they have gone through, their heroes and their hopes for the future and of hockey," he says. This baring of their souls is awkward but important. "It builds trust. If they can talk about that sort of thing, they can talk about hockey with a great deal of trust in their teammates," says Fitzpatrick.

That in turn goes a long way in shaping the kind of team that Fitzpatrick thinks represents Australia. "When Australia play, we want to focus on three things -- skills, thinking and tactics, and a warrior mentality," he says. "We fight for everything and never give in."

That warrior mentality is no guarantee for success -- Australia finished sixth in the Rio Olympics -- but it certainly is a big part of it. "When we were here at World League Final [in 2017] we won through team spirit, not because we were the best team. It was the same at the Champions Trophy. It doesn't work all the time but it is an important part when it works. Our player knows he's part of something bigger than himself and that's Australian hockey. That's our culture and it's one we are proud of," he says.

And unusual as it may seem, respecting that culture is what this practice of the players wearing their first jersey is supposed to do. "Part of honouring the past is honouring where we came from. There's much more to Australian hockey than these 18 young men. It's the wider community that we are want to give back to," says Fitzpatrick.