Ireland’s men tip off their European championships campaigns this weekend both hoping to cause a major surprise and potentially nick an Olympic place in the process in Monchengaldbach.
Pre-tournament form suggests they can threaten following a summer in which the Celtic Cup, the Champions Challenge II and, perhaps most notably, the INSEP Five Nations Cup was annexed, the latter featuring world number one side Australia and sixth-ranked Korea.
Three nations and 2012 hosts England will qualify for London from this competition, making a semi-final berth imperative. Ireland contest those spots with France and the Netherland but begin with a huge test against the English, the reigning champions.
Former Irish player Iain Lewers (pictured), he makes his debut for his adopted nation in a major tournament having controversially sat out three years of international hockey to switch allegiance from Ireland.
The sight of two brothers facing each other has been scuppered, though. Mark Gleghorne, another Ulsterman, followed Lewers in switching but long-term injury means he has not yet featured for England.
In those three years out, sibling Paul has risen to be an Irish mainstay and is likely to line out in defence for Paul Revington’s side.
England’s preparations have been mixed but they consider themselves serious contenders and the excitement is enough to see them get a rare, live airing on BBC, albeit on the red button service. They do have superstar Ashley Jackson – a nominee for 2010’s world player of the year – back in harness after a pelvic injury.
And he is in bullish mood ahead of this event, telling the Guardian: “We are picking up confidence all the time. Since 2008, we have reached the semi-finals of the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, and we have won the Europeans. We have lost a few, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We are now serious competitors for the biggest titles.”
Going through with England would be the ideal scenario as it would mean the top four in the competition would all qualify for London 2012. As it is, three sides and England will earn their ticket from this event.
A youthful France will aim to upset Revington’s side after a galling summer at Irish hands, losing in Paris, Cardiff, Lille and Dublin over the past three months.
The Dutch, meanwhile, have a mix of world beaters and up and comers with coach Paul van Ass calling son Seve into the side with just seven prior caps to his name. Main discussion of their squad has been on the goalkeeping front, untested Pirmin Blaak and Jaap Stockman getting the nod.
All eyes, though, invariably switch to the amazing Teun de Nooijer who will extend his record of 434 caps – with 214 goals – while Taeke Taekema is another with over 200 international goals to his name. Throw in Floris Evers, Rob van den Horst and Jeroen Hertzberger and they have all the aces.
** For ideas on where and how to follow Ireland’s progress at the event, click here