Rupinder, 26, was the leading goal-scorer for the men’s Hockey team last year, of which 11 came in the successful Asian Champions Trophy. The hockey star with 171 international caps and 76 international goals – he scored all four in India’s 4-0 win over New Zealand to clinch bronze at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in May – was this year named Mahindra Scorpio Times of India Awards (TOISA) Hockey Player of the Year (Jury’s Choice). TOI Sports spoke to Rupinder on his and the Indian team’s success in 2016, how the game has changed over the past decade, and what lies ahead for Indian hockey.
Where does 2016 rank in your career?
We surely did well in many tournaments in 2016, but for me, playing at the Olympics was the most important. Even though we did not get the results that we were looking for, to represent India at the Olympics is one of the biggest highlights of my career so far. The most special moments for me were the Gold Medal in the Asian Champions Trophy and playing in the Olympics Quarter Final. We weren’t able to achieve what we had set out for, but it was one of the most special feelings to represent India at the Olympics.
From a personal view, scoring 11 goals in the ACT must rank highly…
I was very happy as this was the first time I had scored 11 goals in any tournament, and that certainly gave me a lot of confidence. It motivated me to keep doing better, which also helped me become India’s leading goal-scorer in the 4 Nations Invitational Tournament that followed.
When you look at Indian hockey from when you started your career, to now, what has changed?
There’s been a huge transformation. The entire set-up nowadays is way more organised. For one, we get the best of training facilities, the exposure through world-class support staff, International tours, and then of course the HIL (Hockey India League), which has been a real game-changer. Right from rubbing shoulders with the world’s best players, to providing a huge platform for the young players, and making hockey a viable career option with the kind of money involved.
Beyond the Asian level, looking at the top teams in the world – Argentina, Australia, Germany, Netherlands – where do you see India? And how do you close the gap?
We’re certainly getting there. Today, we are on par in terms of fitness and many other things, but what consistently need to improve upon is our mental strength to perform against such world-class opponents. We’ll have to keep getting smarter at the mental aspects of the game. With the kind of training we undergo, we are now on par with the world’s fittest teams, and this has certainly been one of the biggest improvements in recent times.
Before the Olympics, we underwent specialised psychology sessions which made a huge difference in how we manage pressure situations. It really helped us get mentally strong and to then play at the biggest stage like the Olympic Games went a long way in preparing us to deal with the pressure.
Roelant Oltmans has had an impact, both on the senior and junior team’s…
He has been a great mentor to us and has definitely played a crucial role in the success of the team. He has been influential in India’s climb in the rankings.
The Azlan Shah Cup featured some good performances, but given the status of the team entering the tournament, bronze was a disappointing result. Putting aside the loss of PR Sreejesh, what went wrong?
The loss against Malaysia certainly hurt us. Sreejesh’s absence is always a big loss but when we look at it overall, our performance was there but we missed out on some key opportunities which cost us dearly.
Then came the Hockey World League Semi-finals in London, where India finished sixth. Barring two wins over Pakistan, there was not much to speak of as we saw with losses to Malaysia and Canada. How do you view that performance?
We were trying different combinations, and with the World Cup coming up next year, giving exposure to young players was very important. In spite of the results, it was a big learning experience and we came out with a lot of positives from the tournament. For now, our main focus is to do well in the Asia Cup and the World League Final. Right now, we have a good mixture of youth and experience, which will help us identify our best combinations going into these high-profile tournaments.
The women’s and junior men’s team also took big strides over the last year…
Qualifying for the Olympics after such a long gap was a great achievement for the women’s team and the kind of hard work and determination shown by this team is there to see. As far as the junior men’s team is concerned, of course winning the World Cup has helped them grow in confidence and develop the winning mentality that is so important at the world stage. Their success at the junior level is thus rubbing off when they carry that belief while playing for the senior team as well, thereby creating a healthy competition within the team.
The junior team is full of talent… Mandeep Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Varun Kumar, Armaan Qureshi, Gurjant Singh, Anand Lakra… which of the younger players has most impressed you?
I’m really impressed with the dedication that Gurjant Singh shows. But the entire crop is extremely talented and each one has his own strengths. I’m sure they all have a great future ahead of them.
You were the TOISA Hockey Player of the Year (Jury’s Choice) for an excellent 2016, in which you were India’s highest goal-scorer. How does it feel?
Wearing the India jersey and doing my best for the nation is in itself a special feeling. On top of it, when I got such recognition, it only inspired me do even better. There’s always pressure when you play for India, but it’s up to the individual how you take it. For me, it increases my confidence and the expectations from myself. I believe the pressure brings the best out of me.
As you walked up to receive your award, you stopped to touch the feet of Mr Ajit Pal Singh. You are obviously aware of the great legacy of Indian hockey, and what does it mean to follow in the steps of such iconic players. Do you see yourself as an ambassador for India when you take the field?
Of course, when you are playing for India, you have to be cautious and responsible at the same time. We try to set an example, to be a role-model figure. And Ajit Pal Singh ji is that role-model figure. I wasn’t even born when he lifted the World Cup and yet, to see how humble he is when he talks to us, is a huge learning in itself.
You have been side-lined with injury for a while. How do you keep fit and motivated?
Representing this great nation is the biggest high one can experience. And once you live that moment, you don’t need anything else to keep you going. It is the ultimate driving force.
Source : timesofindia