"Grateful for support - have taken good steps together with SAI and HI," says Sjoerd Marijne
It has been nothing short of a dramatic comeback for the Dutchman whose second stint with the Golden Girls has yielded one gold (FIH Series Finals) and two silver medals (Asian Champions Trophy and Asian Games), apart from a string of valiant performances at the World Cup and the Spain tour which has catapulted Indian women's hockey to a whole new level.
Yet, coach Sjoerd Marijne, the principal architect of the modernization process which has reaped rich rewards remains grounded and pragmatic as ever - and is candid enough to admit that the ascendancy of the team is not necessarily linked to his own future.
"My future is not important for the Indian women's team. My contract runs until August 2020 and the most important thing at this moment is to qualify for the Olympics. We have worked fairly hard for that and for the process which involves the whole staff in this team, I wish to compliment the people around me."
Rani Rampal and co. overcame teams like Chile, Uruguay, and Japan en route to winning the FIH Series Finals and also guaranteed themselves a place in the Olympic qualifiers.
Yet, due to the huge disparity in ranking points between the FIH Pro League and the FIH Series Finals, the Indian eves slid one place in the world rankings and are currently in the tenth position.
Later this month, the Indians will take on Pro League silver medalists Australia, apart from China and hosts Japan, in the Olympic Test Events at Tokyo to test their mettle before the all-important qualifiers.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Sjoerd Marijne expresses anguish over the fact that the Indian women have fallen behind in the rankings despite winning the only tournament they played this year, but is upbeat about the chances of his chargers in the Olympic qualifiers and beyond.
Here are the excerpts from the interview:
"Reena Khokhar is back"
SK: What has been the thought process behind the team selection for the Olympic Test Event?
Marijne: The thought process behind the selection is to continue the good work from the FIH Series Finals and carry it forward into the Test Events. We have made two changes to the side.
Reena Khokhar is back after recovering from her eye injury and is much better now. Jyoti will be replaced by Sharmila who did very well in the training sessions.
Sharmila Devi is also a young player like Jyoti and now she may have a chance. Sharmila is the seventeenth player for us and the seventeenth and eighteenth players usually do not get to play.
We are allowed to have eighteen players in this tournament as opposed to sixteen but once a player is replaced she cannot be brought back - in short, the Olympic rules apply in the Test Events.
Ace defender Sunita Lakra, who had a knee operation, will not be in the team headed for Tokyo.
Our focus in the camp now is to learn to put more pressure on the opponent. We had worthy opponents in the semifinals and finals of the FIH Series Finals (Chile and Japan respectively) and we want to continue playing good hockey in match situations and maintain the winning rhythm.
SK: The girls had played against Chile and Uruguay in the HWL Round 2 in 2017. How were the matches at Hiroshima different from the ones back then?
Marijne: The girls did play Chile and Uruguay in the HWL round 2 in 2017 but this time was different. The girls were much fitter and faster than they were a couple of years ago. We were able to induce a lot more speed into the game this time.
The Indian girls also received compliments from the coaching staff of the Chilean team who were impressed by the manner in which they improved and how strong and fit they look currently. Our attacking and defending has also improved a lot and we scored from a few crucial PCs.
There is a lot of ownership in the team and the senior players are taking a lot of responsibility. I told the girls before the tournament that we cannot change what happened in the Asian Games but what we can change is the future.
I also told the girls that if we win the tournament it would help us maintain or improve our ranking as the higher-ranked side hosts the lower-ranked team in the Olympic qualifiers. They were extremely focussed in every match.
"Mistakes against Australia will prove costly"
SK: The Australians performed extremely well in the Pro League before losing a pulsating shootout to Holland in the final. Can the Indians match or surpass the Gold Coast performance against Australia where they went down fighting by a lone goal?
Marijne: Firstly, we have to wait and see what kind of team the Australians bring for the Test Event. One year is a long time and a lot has changed since the Commonwealth Games.
It will be interesting to see how we fare against a team like Australia especially since we only played lower-ranked sides in the FIH Series Finals. The last time we played against higher-ranked teams was back in January when we took on Ireland and Spain.
Six months have passed since, and for me, it will be more like a test of our ability. When we win, we do not focus on what we have to improve as everybody is happy and content with the result.
We did commit mistakes in the previous tournament but were not punished for them - against Australia, we will pay the price for such mistakes. It's an opportunity for us to see where we stand currently.
SK: The Indians won the FIH Series Finals, which was the only tournament on offer but despite the title-triumph the team slid down the rankings. Are you disappointed or is it something you take in your stride?
Marijne: It is a huge disappointment to have slipped down the rankings as playing the Olympic qualifiers at home can be a huge advantage. Even otherwise, I do not feel that the system (ranking points) should be the way it is - although I cannot change it.
Wayne Lombard (Scientific Advisor), the psychologists, the nutritionists, and the people at SAI (Sports Authority of India) and Hockey India, have all taken some good steps together. We are not there yet, but I am grateful for all the support and that helps us to prepare in a good way.
For us, it is important that when the qualifiers happen, we can look at ourselves in the mirror and say we did everything we could to prepare for the matches. Beyond that, it is sports with one ball and 22 players and the better team will win.
SK: Gurjit did remarkably well at Hiroshima after a return from injury. Are you satisfied with her conversion rate?
Marijne: Gurjit's drag flicks at Hiroshima were world-class and the best part was that she scored under pressure as well. The goal she scored against Japan (in the final), I do not see a lot of women doing that.
She also scored in the semifinal and that was phenomenal.
The Team for the Test Events:
Goalkeepers: Savita Poonia (Vice-Captain); Rajani Etimarpu
Defenders: Deep Grace Ekka, Reena Khokhar, Gurjit Kaur, Salima Tete, Nisha
Midfielders: Sushila Chanu Pukhrambam, Nikki Pradhan, Monika, Lilima Minz, Neha Goyal
Forwards: Rani Rampal (captain), Navneet Kaur, Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Navjot Kaur, Sharmila Devi