After nine warm-up matches in 2015 already, Craig Fulton’s Irish senior men formally start their Olympic qualifying bid at Chula Vista in California at the World League round two, needing a top three finish to keep their road to Rio on course.
They enter this phase of the competition as second highest seed – a ranking place below Canada – and should negotiate their way through but a much-maligned tournament format is fraught with potential booby traps.
Speaking before his side headed out to the US, coach Fulton said he was “definitely happy” with his side’s preparations that have seen Ireland shade a two-game series with South Africa, fall to elite Netherlands and Belgium sides before sharing a series with France.
Looking back, he says the trip to the heat in the southern hemisphere will serve his side well.
“It got up to 33 degrees in Cape Town; that’s exactly why we wanted to go there. San Diego is mid-20s so we will be well suited for the conditions.
“We were training twice a day, sometimes three times a day over there. We could end up playing a quarter-final at 8.30am in the World League so we played early morning sessions in South Africa, trying to prepare for that. We wanted to make sure we had every eventuality covered in training.”
If Ireland prevail and land a top three finish, they will advance to World League round three, most likely in Argentina, in the summer where the Olympic places are doled out.
Ireland start out with a four-team group that starts out against world number 25 Chile on Saturday before meeting Austria (22) on Sunday before facing Italy next Tuesday.
The Austrians are certainly the toughest initial opponent. They recently won a series against South Africa, perennial Olympic qualifiers, in Cape Town while three of their number helped Harvestehuder THC to the world’s premier club crown, the Euro Hockey League title, last year.
Michael Korper is one of Europe’s most lethal strikers while Benjamin Stanzl is a superb player in the libero role. In addition, ten of their panel hail from SV Arminen who reached the KO16 of the EHL in stunning fashion last October and their indoor side recently medalled at the indoor World Cup.
Nonetheless, Ireland beat them in midweek in a warm-up tie, Conor Harte scoring a rasping reverse-stick effort, as well as beating hosts USA to show they are getting used to the conditions.
By some way, Ireland are the most experienced side at the event with an average of 98 caps with no tournament debutants. And Fulton says that while the sides are not the most familiar of opponents, they will make sure not to under-estimate anyone.
“We respect every opponent we play. Austria is a dark horse and have had a very successful recent indoor World Cup and the majority of their outdoor squad is their indoor squad. We won’t underestimate them or anyone. We know a bit about Chile and Italy but we just go out one game at a time.”
All four sides from the group qualify for a quarter-final spot where they will be paired with one of Canada (14), Russia (19), USA (27) and Trinidad and Tobago (30) dependent on final positions in the group phase.
Lose that quarter-final tie and Ireland’s Olympic dream will be over in an instant and so, in theory, it is important for Ireland to try and ensure early wins to set up a simpler game in the knock-out phase.
“We always want to improve our ranking and do want to be winning the tournament. At the same time, it is about playing your best hockey when it counts. In this format, the pool games are important to get placings but the quarter-final is everything.”
Ireland travelled to San Diego last Friday with Conor and David Harte arriving from India on Sunday after an epic journey via Chandigarh, Delhi, Hong Kong and Chicago.
It is the first time Fulton has had a full panel together thus far in 2015, a product of having players scattered across Europe, some in professional environments, some combining work or studies with their elite level hockey.
Fulton says “it is a mixed blessing” to have more players who play hockey as a profession though it comes with more difficult access to getting everyone together.
“I am looking forward to having my whole team together at the same time. It has been a while and, for the last six week block, we haven’t had that.
“But the full squad has been together from the 22nd. From then until we play on Saturday, we have that period to bond and gel to do what we want to do.”
One of the players plying his trade in Belgium on a full-time basis is Shane O’Donoghue and he says that his first season with Dragons is helping him push his personal boundaries.
“Playing in Belgian or Dutch league, you get a great deal of confidence playing with the best players in the world,” he said. “You go over with the intention of improving yourself as an individual.
“When you come back to the international environment, you have that confidence. That is massive for me and, going into a tournament like World League 2, I want to bring the gains I have made into the team and benefit the team.
“The main thing is that it is a profession. You train three or four times a week on the pitch and then in the gym. The more you do, physically, you see massive improvements.
“You also want to identify and critique certain parts of your game and playing abroad has really assisted my game as an individual to try and excel and be the best player that I can be.”
During the French series, he showed he was one of Ireland’s key men in midfield while also proving lethal at corner time. Getting those set pieces right is something he says will be vital in San Diego.
“We did a lot of practice on our set-pieces which is something that we have prided ourselves on over the past couple of years.
“We are really trying to get back to that strong level. It boils down to confidence and rhythm whether it be drag-flicks or the switches, I think we are starting to show how strong a threat we can be.”
** The tournament website can be seen here: http://events.fih.ch/new/competition/416
World League Round Two (Chula Vista, USA)
Pool A (all Irish time)
Saturday: Ireland v Chile, 9.30pm; Austria v Italy, 11.15pm
Sunday: Chile v Italy, 9pm; Austria v Ireland, 11.15pm
Tuesday: Ireland vs Italy, 9pm; Austria v 11.15pm