When Rovers contrived to knock out ONO Atletic Terrassa in last November’s group stages, it was the biggest shock in this competitions short history.
As fate would have it, Three Rock drew their other group opponents and their familiarity with the Belgian side can be either a blessing or a curse in the eyes of coach Turloch O’Siochain.
Speaking back in January when the draw was first made, O’Siochain said of the draw:
“What could we hope for? One of the big names of European hockey and a chance to measure ourselves against the best or one or one of the less fancied group winners.
“Whichever way it went, I was going to prepare the team in the same way no matter who we got. What I did know was that, as the lowest ranked team left in the competition, everybody wanted to draw us.
“One of the joys of playing in Europe is getting the chance to compete against teams that you know little about. This can give you the freedom to play without restriction, something that domestic leagues can stifle through familiarity.
After a couple of months to mull over the draw and the opposition, O’Siochain is as excited as he was back then and is buoyed by the fact that his side is coming into form at the right time.
Leinster league results have been mixed but the big scores have been saved for the IHL with bonus point wins over Lisnagarvey, Banbridge and Cork C of I – the latter one of the more complete performances his side has turned in this term.
As a result, the coach looks on his side’s familiarity with Leuven as a big positive
“We go out there with an expectation that we are capable of progressing. That’s a great feeling to have, so we’re definitely excited.
“We’ll take the game as it comes and look at ourselves honestly afterwards and assess how much we’ve moved on – which I know we have.”
He goes into the competition without Phelie Maguire, his most experienced campaigner in European hockey due to his volunteer work in Palestine but Gavin Bourke returns to the panel after back trouble kept him out of the CI game.
Leuven, for their part, have just completed their league campaign in second place behind the Waterloo Ducks and have a couple of injuries to contend with.
In Jordi Fabregas, they have a man looking to face his old club mates should his side progress. Before moving to Belgium at the start of the season, the Spaniard was part of the RC Polo side who won every national competition available to them.
His move to Leuven was heavily criticised in his home country but eliminating Terrassa helped die down that expectation. If his side were to oust Rovers, Polo are a potential quarter-final opponent with three of his cousins in their line-up, adding to his personal motivation.
There is also the added bonus that a win would all but ensure a second place for Irish teams in the EHL.
Should that come to pass, those two positions, as revealed today by the Irish Hockey Association, would go to the IHL and ISC winners. If Pembroke were to win both competitions, the IHL runner-up will take the second EHL place.
* To watch Three Rock play Leuven, and indeed every single EHL game over the next four days, go to http://www.ehlhockey.tv/ and choose their live streaming option.