The Irish invasion of Brasschaat takes over this weekend as Banbridge and Cookstown, along with a glut of green internationals, go in search of an EuroHockey League KO16 place.
It sees Ulster clubs enjoy their first taste of the competition, the sides setting off early on Thursday morning on bus via Dublin to northern Belgium to take in the biggest club competition in the world.
Bann start the competition and have already admitted to the Hook they will be focussing on their first tie, the challenge of French champions CA Montrouge, rather than that of two-time champions UHC Hamburg.
Coach Mark Tumilty – who played in Europe in previous times – said on the announcement of the draw that it is important to channel their energy into that first tie. To that end, playing Montrouge on Friday morning allows them a straight run at the game – a situation which Pembroke took advantage of two seasons ago when they put Scotland’s Kelburne to the sword.
“The big challenge for me and the players is too channel our efforts towards the French game as that is the important one regarding qualifying for the next stage,” Tumilty said.
“Too often Irish teams at all levels have come close against the top teams but ended up not winning the crucial game in the tournament.”
It was a point he reiterated on BBC earlier this week. They get a day’s rest before facing the Germans which could mean their fate will already be decided and they would carry the majority of Irish club hopes for advancement.
That is because Cookstown have been handed an absolute brute of a draw, playing English giants Reading and then Dutch kingpins Amsterdam back to back on Friday and Saturday.
But co-coach Stephen Cuddy is buzzing about the challenge ahead which has been likened to a non-league side taking on Champion’s League opposition.
He told The Hook this week about what this moment means for the Co Tyrone club: “This is obviously the biggest test in hockey any of us have faced on the club scene.
“Initially I felt like a non-league coach who has just got Liverpool in the Champions League! On reflection we are not a non-league team and have plenty of talent in our own side that will be able to compete with the players we will come up against next weekend.
“We are under no illusions and we know that we are in the toughest group (Pool A) and most people will expect us to be on the back of heavy defeats. From our point of view, we are determined to give the best possible account of ourselves and have based a lot of our preseason around making sure that we give ourselves the opportunity to do this.”
To this end, the club has played 20 games since the start of August and last weekend’s win over Banbridge in the IHL is a big boost and have spent the past two months researching their opposition.
“We are going to Belgium full of confidence and a wee bit of hope. We have researched the two teams we are going to play and usually you can find a few kinks in the armour of the local sides we play – but Michael and I have found it more difficult to find kinks in the armour of Reading and Amsterdam.
“David Ames has provided us with excellent information on Reading and we have a few spies lurking about on the continent that have been able to tell us a thing or two about Amsterdam.
“Penalty Corners are going to define our tournament and particularly how we defend them! Reading have GB International Richard Mantell and Amsterdam have the legendary Taeke Taekema and the fact that some of players wear a replica shirt of his just tells you how good the man is.”
They travel with a full panel with key forward Timmy Smyth (pictured, below) cleared in midweek to travel, getting his passport just in time after local councillors and MLAs stepped in. For both clubs, it offers their members and local fans a unique possibility, one which Irish clubs have enjoyed to a large extent in recent years, as the other coach, Michael Haycock attests having been to the KO16 in Bloemendaal at Easter.
“The European Hockey league is club hockey at its pinnacle, the way it is presented is second to none. The teams that have preceded from Ireland have done incredibly well. In fact, Glenanne were very unlucky not to get a result against last year’s winner HGC in the KO16.”
Cuddy is keen to pay tribute to the club support: “I would like to stress that we are not going to Antwerp as a first eleven, we are going as a club! The boys and management team appreciate so much the effort that people from Cookstown are making to travel to the tournament. We will enjoy it together; win, lose or draw!”
Chris Cargo, meanwhile, took to twitter to express his excitement in playing an Irish club for the first time in several years since moving to England where he played for Bath Buccaneers before joining Reading.
He is among a series of Irish men playing this weekend, hoping to join David Ames in the last 16 – he helped Beeston to reach that phase with a fine performance two weeks ago.
Corkonian Jason Lynch looks forward to his first taste of the competition with the racing rats of Brussells and he will come up against Ronan Gormley’s Club de Campo on Sunday in the stand-out group of this round. Germany’s Club an der Alster complete a high quality line-up.
Host club Dragons feature ban in-form Stephen Butler and Eugene Magee who both scored in the club’s victory over Daring last weekend which lifted them to top of the Belgian top tier.
Pool A fixtures (all Irish time): Reading vs Cookstown, 12pm Friday; Cookstown vs Amsterdam H&BC, 11am Saturday; Amsterdam vs Reading, 11am, Sunday
Pool F fixtures: CA Montrouge vs Banbridge, 9.30am Friday; UHC Hamburg vs CA Montrouge, 8.30am Saturday; Banbridge vs UHC Hamburg, 8.30am Sunday
** To watch all the fixtures live, log on to www.ehlhockey.tv. On television, Cookstown’s tie with Reading is down to be shown on Eurosport 2 live on Friday. For the full broadcast schedule, click here