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Goal Is To Win Gold at 2024 Paris Olympics – India’s Hockey Coach Craig Fulton

As India prepare for the 2024 Paris Olympics, head coach Craig Fulton speaks about his ambitions, strategy and more.

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With less than four months remaining for their gold quest at the 2024 Paris Olympics, the Indian men’s hockey team are currently in Australia. Coming off impressive performances in the FIH Pro League 2023-24, where they showcased dominance in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, the Indian squad, led by Harmanpreet Singh will be locking horns with the Kookaburras in 5 Test matches, in a bid to prepare for the perennial event in the French capital.

Ahead of this crucial tour, head coach Craig Fulton shared insights with The Quint, underscoring the importance of the Australia tour, India’s expectations from the Olympics & more.

Here are the excerpts:

How would you describe your journey with the Indian side so far?

It has been nearly a year since I joined, and it has been quite refreshing. When I came on board, we only had two weeks of training before diving into the Pro League. Then, we had three months to prepare for the Asian Games, which wasn't much time. Despite the challenges, it's been exciting and fulfilling to qualify for the Olympics and become the top team in Asia, which was our main goal. Along the way, we have had our share of highs and lows. Starting off with a strong performance in the Pro League's first round was a great start and provided a solid foundation for our journey.

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You scored against India in the 2004 Olympics. And now you are the coach. How would you describe this feeling?

Yeah, it is quite interesting, because obviously I have journeyed quite a bit through hockey, playing and coaching. So in 2004, I was playing for South Africa. And since then I have coached in Ireland, I have coached Belgium and now I am coaching in India. It has been a nice journey to date, that's for sure.

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What are your expectations from the Olympics? Do you feel you will be able to get India in the top rung of the podium?

Yeah, that is what we are aiming for. Every tournament we enter, we want to win it. Otherwise, what's the point, right? We have some time to get better, and we will be playing games in Australia, in Perth, and then in the Pro League in Europe. So, we have plenty of games to figure out what we need to improve and what we are already good at.

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What do you make of India’s group stage opponents at the Olympics? Which team do you think will pose the toughest challenge?

Well, both pools are difficult. I mean, it is the Olympics. If you want to win the Olympic gold, you have to beat everyone. At the same time, in our group, ranked above us is Belgium. And ranked behind us is Australia. So yeah, that is tight. And then the games with Ireland and Argentina and New Zealand are not going to be easy either. It is a tough pool. It is a good pool, but I think it is a nice tough pool. We will have to prepare really, really well to do well in the pool.

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India lost against Australia in both their games at the FIH Pro League. Where is India lacking against Australia? Can they overcome the Kookaburras at the Olympics?

We drew one 2-2 and then we lost in the shootout. But in the 60 minutes we drew, we were 2-1 up with five minutes to go, so that was a good improvement. The other game obviously was a strange game. We went to nail down after 90 seconds and then we were forced to up at halftime so that's really interesting. We played really well and then didn't play the last 20 minutes very well. So, learnt a few lessons there. But Australia is a formidable team and it is a good benchmark to be playing them for five five matches now. That will help us fine tune a lot of things. I am sure they will learn a lot about us as we will learn about them.

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New Zealand have given India major blows in the past, beating them in the 2023 World Cup and at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Can they pose a tougher challenge than Australia?

No disrespect to New Zealand but Australia beat New Zealand. Australia are in a different bracket at the moment. They are looking a lot more like themselves, so I think they are probably the better side and they are going to be the team to beat.

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India and Belgium have had some fierce battles since the Rio Olympics. They have played 21 matches, with Belgium winning 10 times and India clinching 9 wins. Two matches ended in draws. How prepared are you for the Belgians?

We are focusing firstly on Australia now, because that is how we are preparing. Then we will have a bit of a break and then we will come back to Bangalore for a three-week training camp before we go to the Pro League. So, we will know exactly where we are after the games against Australia and what we need to improve and what we need to keep doing. And then we will have a full focus on Germany, Belgium, Argentina, and England. Those will be the next four teams that we will play. So first we do Australia, then we will come back, reassess. Then we will go again for a three week training camp and get ready for the pro league in Belgium, and England.

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You have two brilliant goalkeepers in PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak. How difficult is it to choose one? Have you decided yet?

It is very difficult. I think both have had a lot of game time. Since I've taken over, they are sharing a lot of games to getting good minutes. Suraj is also involved as the third goalkeeper and Pawan was the fourth goalkeeper, so we are blessed with good goalkeepers behind these two. But about making a decision on Sree and Pathak, we are not making that decision now. We will go through the Australia block and then get ready and see where we stand after that.

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India have the services of mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton now. How helpful is that turning out to be?

It is a good balance. Initially, he was just working with the staff and myself. And now he has been around that group longer and been through Asian Games. Then we were in South Africa for our two-week camp and training block there. He was there for a good 10 days of that. He was really involved in that block which was really good. And he is coming to Australia with us now.

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What are the key areas that India will be focusing on?

Getting ready for the Olympics means playing eight games in just 12 days, if you make it all the way to the final or playoffs. That's intense! To handle it, you need to be in great shape and have a squad with lots of options, especially for defenders. They might need to play in two lines, along with midfielders or strikers who can switch positions if needed. If someone gets hurt during a game, you might have to play with one less player, so it's crucial to have substitutes who can step up. Injuries are quite common, with about a 25% chance during the tournament, so picking the right players is key to covering all areas. Some players can even play in more than one position to help out when necessary.

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