A journey into the unknown for Craig Fulton’s first major tournament in charge of the Irish men’s team as they contest the Champions Challenge I in searing heat and humidity in Kuantan, Malaysia.
Since Andrew Meredith’s departure at Christmas time, the search for a 2016 Olympic formula has hit the reset button with the search for players who can offer beginning once again after a tricky 2013 with a large turnover in players with plenty of the 2012 vintage – that came so close to reaching London – finding it difficult to make themselves available.
They may return in due course but, for the moment, Fulton says the slate is clean to find talent that can offer something to the national team. To this end, in January, interim coach Mick McKinnon handed out nine new caps on a training series in Spain and Fulton’s Champs Challenge squad has another new look about it.
They start off on Saturday morning (8am, Irish time) with a tough battle against New Zealand. Local time is 3pm with the weather forecast set for 36 degree heat with an actual feel of between 45 and 52 due to the 70 percent humidity.
From the side that lost 4-2 last year against the Black Sticks in the World League, Ronan Gormley, Peter Caruth, Timmy Cockram, Conor Harte, Mikey Watt, Jonny Bruton, Andy McConnell, Shane O’Donoghue and Phelie Maguire are all not around.
Maurice Elliott will make his debut at age 31 whileMichael Robson and Matthew Bell are the two bolters from the Irish Under-21 panel that played in February. Stevie Dowds, Drew Carlisle, Philip Brown and Richie Shaw will all make their first appearance in a world ranking tournament.
Perhaps this schedule is doing Fulton a favour by placing them against New Zealand first up. By a distance the best side on paper in the competition and genuine World Cup medal contenders, the Black Sticks are at full strength as preparations for The Hague ramp up a notch after the completion of most domestic leagues.
The benefits are that Ireland will not be facing them in the quarter-finals while playing them first will give the new arrivals a marker of what the required standard will be before potentially more manageable ties against Japan and Poland in the pool stages.
Indeed, from a tournament management perspective, topping those two sides has quite a bit of importance. All sides go through to the quarter-finals but there look to be very clear benefits for good pool-play.
On the face of it, Malaysia and Korea are the sides to avoid, especially on their home continent and with better acclimatisation to the gruellingly high humidity. Therefore, landing a date in Thursday’s quarter-finals with Canada or France would be much more preferable.
France are only included by virtue of South Africa’s withdrawal. Canada welcome back Racing Bruxelles’ defender Scott Tupper who was one of the stand-out players in the EHL last week to add to a side that struggled against Malaysia and Korea in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in March.
Ireland: D Harte (Kampong), D Fitzgerald (Monkstown), J Jackson (Captain, Reading), P Gleghorne (Instonians), J Bell (Lisnagarvey), R Shaw (Glenanne), M Bell (Banbridge), B McCandless (Banbridge), E Magee (Banbridge), D Carlisle (Banbridge), M Robson (Annadale), Peter Brown (UCD), C Cargo (Reading), A Sothern (Pembroke Wanderers), S Dowds (Banbridge), K Shimmins (UCD), Philip Brown (Banbridge), M Elliot (Pembroke Wanderers)
** To keep up to the date, have a look around the tournament website here
Pool A opponents
New Zealand (world ranked 6th)
The mighty Black Sticks are considered the tournament favourites and are led by globally respected ex-Belgium coach and former Australian international Colin Batch. They claimed a superb silver medal at the Hero Hockey World League Final in New Delhi and have set their sights on getting among the medals at the upcoming Rabobank Hockey World Cup in The Hague, Netherlands.
Batch has named a strong squad for the tournament, with 11 players each having amassed more than 100 international caps. Defender and team captain Dean Couzins surpassed the 300 appearance mark in the build-up to Kuantan.
Speaking ahead of the tournament, Batch said: “We’ve made our selections with the aim to do well at the Champions Challenge, but also with an eye towards finding the best combinations for the World Cup. We play Ireland first which will be an extremely difficult game. They’ve shown they can provide shocks so that’s a tough game first up.”
At 34, the evergreen Phil Burrows is the most experienced player with over 310 caps, making his debut back in 2000.
Japan (world ranked 14th)
“The Samurais” – come into the Champions Challenge 1 tournament in Kuantan on the back of a series loss against Pool A favourites New Zealand. The Asians produced a fine, battling display to overcome a two goal deficit to claim a 2-2 draw in the series opener before losing 2-0 and 5-1 against their higher ranked opponents.
Japan – who finished as runners up to Pakistan in the 2013 Asian Champions Trophy – have featured in four previous editions of the men’s Champions Challenge 1, having claimed 5th place on three occasions (Kuala Lumpur 2001, Antwerp 2007 & Quilmes 2012).
The squad contains five players that have in excess of 100 international caps: Koji Kayukawa (100+), Tomonori Ono (120+), Kei Kawakami (160+), Katsuyoshi Nagasawa (110+) and Hiroki Sakamoto (100+).
Poland (world ranked 18th)
2011 world indoor silver medallists Poland come into this tournament as the lowest ranked team, but they certainly should not be under-estimated. The squad contains plenty of talent, with Tomasz Gorny, Bartosz Zywiczka and team captain Pawel Bratkowski – who takes the armband in place of the injured Dariusz Rachwalski – being the stand-out players in the group. The absence of attacker Rachwalski is a big blow. Poland, coached by Karol Sniezek, have featured in the two most recent editions of the Champions Challenge 1, finishing sixth and eighth place respectively.
They also endured a tough time at last year’s TriFinance EuroHockey Championships, with a seventh place finish resulting in relegation from the elite tier ahead of the 2015 edition. Fast facts: At the age of 31, Philipp Weide is set to make his international debut in Kuantan. Weide is one month younger than Ireland’s Maurice Elliott, who is also set to make his international debut in Kuantan. Goalkeeper Arkadiusz Matuszak (33) is the oldest player in the Poland squad, with Adam Chwalisz (21) being the youngest. Matuszak (110+) and Gorny (120+) are the only players in the Polish squad named for this event to have made over 100 senior international appearances.
Men’s Pool A Match Schedule.
Saturday, April 26: Ireland vs New Zealand, 8am (Irish time); Japan vs Poland, 10am
Sunday, April 27: Ireland vs Poland, 8am (Irish time); Japan vs New Zealand, 6am
Tuesday, April 29: Ireland vs Japan, 10am (Irish time); Korea vs France, 8am
Thursday, May 1: quarter-finals
Saturday, April 3/Sunday, April 4: classification matches