Looking back on the Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge, Gene Muller has mixed emotions on an event which showed promise but saw three wins over higher rated opposition translate into just a sixth place finish.
Nonetheless, it ended a winless spell running back to 2009 against teams above Ireland in the world list. Furthermore, out-doing Azerbaijan by a couple of places – especially with a big potential gain at August’s Euros – could see Ireland close in on 14th spot and a potentially slightly easier draw in the Olympic qualifiers should that come to pass.
Two such major tournament debutants, at opposite ends of the spectrum, were Sinead McCarthy and Chloe Watkins and their emergence came in for praise from the coach.
“Chloe was a bit of a wildcard coming into the tournament but she’s performed very well. She’s technically gifted but managed to perform at a high level. In this tournament, she wasn’t only talented but was effective; for a first tournament it was quite a showing. I just think she won’t be under the radar for all that long! People at this tournament will have take notice but she’s going to get better and better.
“Sinead embodies a team player. She’s tough, she gives everything – not just on the pitch but every single training session, every weights session. What you see in the game, every game is like that. I’m delighted she has got this chance.”
As for the overall performance, Muller told the Hook felt that a few key moments didn’t work in his sides favour over the eight days but there are plenty of positives to draw.
“We were unfortunate with some of the decisions and that turned out to be the deciding factor [against South Africa]. I thought we were good value, played exceptionally well, played the tactics to a tee. We put in an awesome amount of effort, were technically good.
“I’ve mixed feelings about. Finishing sixth is disappointing but to have played in the fashion we have in this tournament, I have to take that. You’re always chasing the performance and it was really good. We didn’t lose many individual battles, matched them tactically and in certain areas I thought we outplayed them.
“This tournament was to give us exposure to this level of teams. It’s been enormously successful in terms of a focus for our preparations. We prepared well and controlled all the variables. I think we’ve made a jump in our level and I’m happy with that.”
When asked about whether it provided a justification for the new approach taken, Muller said it was too early to tell.
“It’s difficult to call it a vindication of the CPP because that can work in either direction. The players know it was the right decision. They can see it in their level of play. We had to plot our course and go with it. There’s always going to be people who disagree. We aren’t naive but we also know the effort to get to an Olympic Games will come from within and not from without.”
During the tournament, the experimental structure of this year’s competition was a regular cause of concern. FIH President Leandro Negre told the Hook in enthusiastic terms that he felt that the quarter-final stage offered a more exciting endgame to tournaments whilst feeling that it took little from the group stages, saying sides needed to win every game to ensure an easier last eight game.
For Muller, that both group winners bowed out to sides who had previously not won a game in the competition, suggested something different and offered a final word on the matter.
“If every coach I’ve spoke to is against it, why must they continue to try and sell it as a good idea. It’s a bad idea but because it is their idea, they have got overly connected to it. The tournament format is bizarre and I can’t see it lasting.”