A positive start to its Rio Olympics preparation would be the key agenda when the Indian women’s hockey team launches its campaign in the Hawke’s Bay Cup in Hastings, New Zealand on April 2.

Going into the tournament, there will be two things paramount on the minds on the team’s think-tank — fitness and converting short corners into goal.

These are the two key areas that chief coach Neil Hawgood, his coaching staff and senior members of the squad, have singled out for special attention during the recent training and preparatory camp.

If India, placed 13th in the world rankings, is to outplay Black Sticks, ranked fourth, and China a place behind, the Indian eves would need to sustain their intensity for the entire duration of the match. Even Ireland, which is ranked below India, is capable of springing a surprise.

Coach’s fitness obsession

“In the past we have lost some crucial matches due to fitness and not being able to convert penalty corners. In this camp we have been paying extra attention to these two critical aspects. In fact, you can say that our chief coach Neil Hawgood is obsessive about improving the fitness levels of those in the camp,” said Deepika, who will lead the Indian team in the Hawke’s Bay Cup in the absence of Ritu Rani.

“In modern hockey, converting penalty corners makes a huge difference between winning and losing. We have to learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure they are not repeated.”

Chance to assess young talent

The New Zealand outing will also give the chief coach and selectors a chance to see how some of the junior players who have been drafted in the camp fare at the senior level ahead of the 2016 Rio Games.

“The Olympic squad has not been announced yet. Currently, the entire core group is training at the camp. So, everyone is very keen to perform in the Hawke’s Bay Cup to brighten their chances for making the cut for the Olympics. This is good for long-term because we would have more options when selecting the side for Rio,” said the skipper.

The prospect of taking on higher ranked teams in the Hawke’s Bay Cup is not weighing down the 18-member Indian team.

“It’s good that we are playing these teams in the tournament. It will not only give us, and especially the youngsters, critical exposure of playing against good sides, but will also prepare us mentally to take on even better sides in the Olympics. Also, the improved fitness levels of our players give us the confidence of playing against higher ranked sides,” Deepika said.

Though, doing well in the Hawke’s Bay Cup is the immediate target of the team, the girls are well aware that history beckons them at the Rio Olympics for which they have qualified after a long wait of 36 years.

“There is a huge amount of excitement among us regarding the Olympics. For Indian women’s hockey it’s a dream come true moment. People think it’s still some months away, but if you ask me, we believe that there is very little time left. Since, we have made it to the Olympics after such a long time, we want people to take note of Indian women’s hockey. It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Deepika said.

The Indian eves will depart for New Zealand later tonight.