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While a 2014 World Cup spot is on offer for the overall winner of this week’s European championships, breaching the top four for the first time is very much the target for the Irish men and women’s hockey teams this week in Boom, Belgium.
Both sides saw their big chance to reach the elite competition fall away earlier this year in the World League. It means that both coaches have selected panels with more than a passing glance at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
For Darren Smith’s women, they get their group stage underway on Saturday with the toughest possible tie, facing the London 2012 gold medalists, the Netherlands.
The Dutch have brought an experimental side with just eight of their Olympic side but are, nonetheless, a formidable outfit and current world number ones.
They did show they were beatable at the World League 3, losing to Germany in the final, albeit on penalties. Former world player of the year Naomi van As is still stepping out of the panel following London through injury.
Eva de Goede is the side’s remaining true star, pulling the strings in midfield while Kim Lammers up front captains the side in tandem with corner expert Maartje Paumen.
Less than 24 hours later, Smith’s side meet world number 21 side Belarus with revenge on the agenda. The white Russians plowed a huge dent into Ireland’s World League 2 plans with a 2-0 win back in February with Hanna Zabrotskaya and Natassia Syrayezhka, the two goalscorers, included in their panel.
They are the tournament low rank but will target Ireland as a potential three points.
Similarly, Belgium are somewhat of a nemesis for Ireland in what could be a critical showdown on with a semi-final berth potentially on the line with the top two set to advance from the group.
The red panthers have an unhappy knack of beating Ireland to the big prizes, notably ending the Olympic dream in Braxgata in March 2012 with a 4-1 final win in the qualifiers.
They ran up a strong 3-0 win over Ireland in Monchengladbach in 2011’s Euros with elegant skipper Charlotte de Vos netting twice. But Ireland have won the most recent meeting of the sides, though, Audrey O’Flynn’s golden goal garnering a quarter-final success in last autumn’s Champions Challenge I in Dublin.
Ireland bring a reasonably established panel with ten players bringing over a half-century of experience.
With 126 caps, Cliodhna Sargent is among that number. She was called in to the panel last week for her third Europeans despite not initially being included in a summer training squad of 27 players.
Injury and unavailability, though, to Kate Dillon and Brenda Flannery trimmed defensive options before Lizzie Colvin suffered an ACL injury, leading to Sargent’s last gasp inclusion.
Youngsters Gillian Pinder and Naomi Carroll will make their competitive tournament debuts while Grace O’Flanagan steps up to the number two goalkeeper spot.
Ireland womens team for European Championships, August 17-24, in Boom, Belgium: N Atcheler (UCD, 45caps), N Carroll (Catholic Institute, 10), C Sargent (Cork Harlequins, 126), N Daly (Loreto, 55), M Frazer (Ballymoney, 38), E Gray (Hermes, 70); N Gray (UCD, 28), L Jacob (Hermes, 131), S McCay (Old Alex, 152), A O’Flanagan (UCD, 47), G O’Flanagan (Railway Union, 4), A O’Flynn (Hermes, 94), G Pinder (Hermes, 11), N Small (Loreto, 77), Emma Smyth (vice-captain, Railway Union, 90), Alex Speers (captain, Railway Union, 151), N Symmons (Loreto, 202) C Watkins (UCD, 76)
Group A fixtures (all in Boom, Belgium; times are Irish)
Saturday: Ireland vs Netherlands, 5pm; Belgium vs Belarus, 1pm
Sunday, August 18: Ireland vs Belarus, 3pm; Belgium vs Netherlands, 7pm
Tuesday, August 20: Ireland vs Belgium, 5pm; Netherlands vs Belarus, 7pm
August 22-25: classification matches