Inexperienced Hockeyroos brace for tough India series
Hockeyroos captain Jane Claxton says she can't help but think about the nerve-filled path towards Olympic qualification as her team prepares to resume their grand rivalry with India this week.
Australia have named an inexperienced squad featuring five debutants for the three-match series in Adelaide, which gets underway on Thursday night.
The two hockey nations have a rich recent history, with India knocking the Hockeyroos out of the Tokyo Olympics, before Australia got their revenge by prevailing in a semi-final shootout at last year's Commonwealth Games.
Although there's only bragging rights on offer for this series, it represents an important step in the Hockeyroos' quest for automatic Olympic qualification.
They will face New Zealand in a best-of-three Oceania series later this year, with the winner to earn a spot at the Paris Games.
The loser will be thrust into a must-win play-off against an equally desperate 'lucky loser'.
Missing the Olympics is an unthinkable prospect for a Hockeyroos franchise steeped in golden tradition, and Claxton says the series against India is an important stepping stone towards locking in a berth in Paris.
"It's incredibly difficult emotionally, physically and mentally to prepare yourself that at the end of the year we're going to have a three-match series against NZ that's going to decide who goes to the Olympics," Claxton said.
"It's incredibly nerve racking. Every time you let your mind drift to that point in time, it's filled with emotions.
"It feels weird being in the top three nations in the world and still having to qualify for an Olympics, but it makes it all the more interesting, and you cherish the opportunity all the more when you get there.
"It's going to be an important three-month period to really solidify our team and make sure we go into it with the strongest team possible."
With the Hockeyroos missing a host of their biggest names for the India series, coach Katrina Powell has named debutants Alice Arnott, Alanna Kavanagh, Olivia Downes, Aisling Utri and Pippa Morgan in the squad.
Eight other players have 20 international caps or less.
Powell hopes the series will help add depth to the set-up, and she's expecting it to be tough against a full-strength India.
"There's been some big clashes lately, and so there's some ascendancy that one of us is trying to get over the other," Powell said.
"This week, we're hoping it's going to be us.
"(India) are a really skilful team. Very determined, very competitive. They're strong, aggressive and physical.
"We have our Oceania Cup in August against NZ. There's one spot for Oceania to automatically qualify for the Olympics.
"These matches against India form a really important part of the preparation."