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Watch out Auckland, the Netherlands are coming

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The Netherlands are rebuilding. After a silver medal at Rio 2016, a match in which they will have considered themselves to have lost gold rather than to have won silver, the world number one side are now pushing themselves to reach new heights of dazzling brilliance. Two players at the heart of Dutch rejuvenation are the young captain Marloes Keetels and the penalty corner specialist Caia van Maasakker.

Away from the turf, both van Maasakker and Keetles are engaging, friendly and funny but the minute they step on the pitch they and their team mates don an aura of invincibility that cannot help but threaten to overwhelm other teams.

Both players spoke of the determination within the Dutch ranks to lay down their marker at the forthcoming Hockey World League Final in Auckland and, when questioned, van Maasakker said with straightforward honesty that currently no other team holds any fear for her or her colleagues.

Off the back of a dominating performance at the Hockey World League Semi-Final in Brussels and an equally strong win at the EuroHockey Championships in August, that is no real surprise and it may cause the other seven nations in Auckland some concern to learn that van Maasakker feels the team is getting stronger all the time.

‘We started with a new group before Brussels and we have been growing together as a group since then. We have been working hard at getting everyone travelling in the same direction. We have also been developing a real belief in each other.

‘We had a week off after Brussels and then, of course, we were preparing for the EuroHockey Championships,’ she says. ‘Then we started training for three days every week with the national team as well as our club training but it is really fun. And of course in six weeks we will be in New Zealand.’

The Netherlands are travelling to Australia first to play some warm-up matches and to acclimatise to a different time zone, but van Maasakker is certain her team will be ready to face all-comers.

‘Out in New Zealand we will be up against some of the best teams in the world, but most teams are in their post-Olympic year and still building. Of course we always have great matches against Argentina but I am also looking forward to playing the USA and New Zealand because we don’t play them so often. Germany and England, we know better.’

For Keetels, this will be a third major tournament wearing the captain’s armband, a position the 25-year-old says she now has until ‘I either leave the team or I am no longer good enough.’ This is in contrast to a lot of teams who rotate captains or pick a different captain for every tournament. It is system that gives the team stability and, as Keetels explains, continuity for the future.

‘I am in the middle in terms of age, so people who are younger feel comfortable talking to me. I have two vice-captains, Carlien Dirkse van der Heuval and Lidewij Welten, and they are both very experienced players who I can ask for advice.

I also regularly talk to Maartje Paumen (former captain of the Netherlands), and she always gives me some good advice.

‘Sometimes in the beginning it was difficult for me to step up and give my opinion in front of experienced players but we talked that through and it is very good at the moment. They respect me even if I am five years younger. I am a playing captain, it is about the tactics. It is the things ‘outside the field’ that I really have to learn. I still have a lot to learn.’

It was Paumen who suggested that Keetels had one-on-one talks with the new leadership group to identify what she needed from them and what they needed from her in order to make the leadership group work effectively.

‘At the time, I thought “but I have known these players for five years, what more do I need to know”, but she was right, there was a different dynamic and we needed to talk about it to make it work.’

The Netherlands team generally has a good vibe surrounding it, probably helped by the fact they are more often than not winning, but Keetels says this can change around selection time. ‘There is tension around selection time.That is the moment you all feel less like a team for that time but we accept that people might be behaving in a slightly different way. It’s okay for people to behave differently so long as it doesn’t affect the team values.

She says the coach and staff give the team three weeks to settle down after a selection period and then unsettled behaviour is stamped out quickly. The onus is always on protecting the team values, which every player buys into when they pull on the orange shirt.

Keetels gives some insight into what constitutes a team value. ‘One of the team values is to always give 100 per cent, even if you are not feeling at your best. Even if it is raining, even if you are unsure because of selection, even if you are not playing at your best, you must still give 100 per cent.’

Another Netherland’s value seems to be chasing every trophy and winning every competition. Keetels says that is as true of this crop of players as previous teams. ‘After the Olympics a lot of great players quit our team so we are still growing. We want to win everything and show people that we are getting better with every experience. We need to be at a position where we are consistent throughout the event, not undone by one bad performance. We always want to win, whatever the competition.’

That competitive spirit is one of the reasons that Van der Heuval and Welten decided to offer themselves for selection again when many people expected them to retire. ‘There are always new challenges,’ explains the captain. ‘For both Carlien and Lidewij, they have new roles now and that is motivational.’ There is a glimmer of a smile on her face as she says ‘Carlien is the oldest player in the side now, that is a new position for her.’

I asked van Maasakker if there was any player who she just didn’t like playing against. In true champion’s style, she laughed the question off. ‘There is no one player who I think “oh-no, she is going to get past me”. As you play on the international stage for longer, you get to know the players and how they will challenge you but that is all part of the fun. Delfina Merino, for example, she is a great player and I know her well because we play at club together, but I see her as a challenge not a fear and that is really cool.’

The Dutch defender says the Hockey World League Finals hold a special place in players’ hearts. It is a great opportunity for the best teams in the world to play against each other and assess where they stand. For her, the qualities that she feels puts the Dutch ahead of many of their rivals is the ethos of hard-work and working for each other that is at the core of the team. This is something that has always been part of the Ojanje psyche and it is something that new players quickly learn.

For Keetels, and I suspect most of the Dutch team, much of the motivation to just keep getting better goes back to Rio 2016. ‘Rio was brilliant but every time I see my silver medal I think ‘urgghhh, I want gold’, so I see that this is the motivation to make us win gold in Tokyo. There is a real sense of competitiveness within the team, we really want to win everything. If we come home without winning gold, then the whole country is surprised. They expect us to win all the time and of course, we want to win.’

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