While many Irish like to poke fun at tenuous American links often cited on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the USA side tomorrow has a couple of very direct inside lines on Paul Revington’s side.
For Liam Walsh, many of his formative years were spent with Monkstown, doing enough to earn a Leinster U-16 call-up before moving stateside.
Following two spells with Clontarf, Nate Franks (pictured, left), meanwhile, has since been co-opted into the US backroom coaching team having worked with the nation’s Junior side until last December.
During his time in Ireland, he helped the Bulls to promotion to division one and was also a key member of the club’s maiden indoor side to make it to the National Trophy’s finals weekend.
While the second outdoor season did not work out too well for ’Tarf in division one, it is still an experience that Franks looks on with great affection.
“I loved it in Ireland. It was phenomenal. It was the first time in a really long time getting to play consistently and competitively against guys. I’ve coached for the past nine years in the States’ women’s university hockey, playing in practice at times with a women’s group. It’s not the same as playing actual games which really matter.
“During the division one year, when we were also playing indoor, having one coach for the outdoor and indoor, to see the different ideas and tactics and the way people play in Ireland was very different what we tend to do in the States. Getting exposed to that was hugely positive.”
David Williamson, former Lisnagarvey and current Pembroke net-minder, provided the connection, working each summer for the past decade at summer camps in the USA.
And it opened up the opportunity for some career highlights, not least lining out with Dutch international Laurence Docherty – pictured below, also with Teun de Nooijer as part of a Bloemendaal trip to California for a mid-season tour – as Clontarf secured a major coup.
As he mentions, getting to play regular league hockey is a tough logistical business in the US with the sport largely confined to the environs of Moor Park in California, the vast proportion of players being drawn from a 50 mile radius.
Outside of that region, place and time seem to be defining factors for the sports growth, the ex-pat community playing its part in some cases – Franks’ hockey playing continued courtesy of a Canadian influence in Washington DC during his university days. Walsh is one recent arrival who came with US links while former Kampong man Michiel Dijkxhoorn is another new recruit.
“It’s an extraordinarily small of players. We’re talking only 100 to 150 players who are eligible and at the right age to play at the national grade.
“But the situation has improved dramatically in the last few years. Nick Conway, who is the head coach for the past five or six years, has done a really good job of trying to expand the player pool.
“Terry Walsh has brought in his ideas from Australia, having selection tournaments for both the men and women. But there is always going to be a problem on the men’s side that there is a perception that it is the women’s choice. As long as that perception continues, it will be difficult to get guys involved.”
The short-term focus is on the Pan-American Games which brings potential Olympic qualification. This Champions Challenge II is perfectly timed from a preparatory perspective.
“This tournament is a great opportunity. The pool was very interesting. China play a completely different way to any European side. Having to adapt is a good experience presumably going into an Olympic qualifier next year where we might end up against some sides like this.
“We want to do well wherever we play and with the way the tournament is here – as you saw in Dublin – whoever wins the fourth game has the chance to win the whole thing. But we are geared very much at the moment toward the Pan-Ams.
“While we do have a young side, I don’t think we’re using an experimental side. Yes, we have some younger guys but, for Ajai Dadhwal for example, it’s his sixth big international tournament.”
As for his inside line on the Irish panel, Franks believes knowledge gleaned from his time in Dublin can be taken with a pinch of salt.
“I don’t know how my knowledge will actually help considering I think I lost a combined total of 30-0 to Pembroke. Maybe my knowledge is to do the exact opposite from those days!
“Ireland is a team we’re relatively familiar with having played them in an Olympic and World Cup qualifier. They’re not an unknown quantity like China who I don’t think we had played in years.
“It’s a question of our guys being able to execute and being able to handle Ireland’s speed and team play. They’ve played themselves into good form. The first two games were a little shaky but against Russia was a really strong performance.”
Finishing fourth in the group stages and drawing table-topping Ireland draws obvious comparisons with the women’s Champions Challenge II just a fortnight ago.
“I did make the joke the other night that this all seems very familiar. I follow Irish hockey and I think it was unfortunate the tournament setup – well, obviously fortunate for the States – basically loses the value of pool-play games.
“But obviously I’d be happy with the same outcome. It will be a very interesting set of quarter-finals in general. In some respects, it works well for us. The type of tournament setup we’re used to; very few are with pools, it’s all single elimination which is what this is essentially.”
Ireland’s date with the US is the fourth game on court, tipping off at 4.30pm, Irish time (5.30pm, CET)
** Full Thursday quarter-final draw (Irish time): China vs Scotland, 9am; France vs Austria, 11.30am; Czech Republic vs Russia, 2pm; Ireland vs USA, 4.30pm