James Coughlan likens it to the start of a marathon; New Zealand's men's hockey team begin a five-month buildup to the Rio Olympics in Tauranga tomorrow.

The North Harbour attacker, having had hip surgery after the Oceania Cup series defeat to Australia last October, is relishing the four-game series against Malaysia.

As the 25-year-old put it, there's only so much training you can do, before you start itching for matchplay.

"It was definitely nice to have time away from hockey in December-January. The operation went well and I'm really looking forward to getting back on the park," the North Harbour player said. He puts his playing fitness around 80 per cent but the Malaysian series, and the four-game contest against Korea to follow in Auckland, is his chance to push that number up and put his best foot forward for Olympic selection.


After the double series at home, world No 8 New Zealand are off to defend the Azlan Shah title they won in Malaysia last year, with the prospect of a European tour to follow.

That is yet to be confirmed but it is expected to include internationals against leading nations the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.

It shapes as a quality build-up, but Massey University student Coughlan pointed out that while the Malaysian and Korean series are important, "you want to peak in August [Olympic time]; you don't want to be peaking in April. "We have to realise there are so many tests before Rio and we've got to make the most of these matches to build into it."

Neither No 13 Malaysia nor No 9 Korea have qualified for the Olympics but they are sure to ask serious questions of the Black Sticks, who have put behind them their rocky qualification for Rio - they got a late reprieve when South African sports bosses opted not to back their team for the Games and New Zealand were given their place.

"They are fast and nippy. Malaysia are probably a little less structured but skill-wise they are quite similar, they're skilful on the ball and do a really good job when put under pressure," Coughlan said.

"The Koreans are a lot more structured and drilled. You know what's coming and it's a case of executing your game better than they do."

Tomorrow is expected to mark the 300th appearance for classy midfielder Ryan Archibald, putting him in an elite club alongside Phil Burrows (343 caps) and the retired Dean Couzing (318).

Coach Colin Batch is keen to get his players back into match action after four months of solid training.

"The time away from games has been good in a way as it has enabled us to assess players and improve their fitness during a tough training block," he said.

"We are looking forward to the opportunity for our first competitive matches of the year which will show where players are at for future selections in the lead up to Rio."

Another player happy to be back is Northland's Shay Neal, who last played at the Azlan Shah tournament almost a year ago. He was sidelined by a knee injury.

"It's such an exciting opportunity for us right now with our first hit-out of the year ahead of Rio. You can tell it's a different year for our group, there's determination and guys are notching up personal bests in testing so it's awesome to see."

• The women's Black Sticks grabbed two late goals to draw their sixth and final match against Argentina in Mar del Plata yesterday. Stacey Michelsen and Kayla Sharland scored in the last four minutes to peg back the world No 2. The series produced two wins, two losses and two draws, but fourth-ranked New Zealand took the honours on goal difference 12-10.