The final act of an impressive summer for the Irish international teams begins in earnest on Saturday morning with the Irish men’s team beginning their EuroHockey Nations Championships in London, meeting France at 8.30am.
To date, the Irish Under-18 girls and senior women both earned promotion to the top tier of their respective European competitions while the Under-18 boys produced a fine showing to earn fifth in the top tier in their Euros.
On the Olympic front, the women were agonisingly close to securing a first ever qualification while the men are still on tenter hooks to see if they can claim a place at Rio 2016.
To that end, there is an outside chance for Ireland to do just that this week at the Olympic Park that, if they can overcome four of the world’s top five sides in what is the toughest continental championship, they can become the 10th team confirmed for the Games.
If Ireland don’t win the competition outright, they can contribute to helping their cause by denying either France or Russia from winning the title. Should the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, England or Spain win the Euros, Ireland will move within one place on the World League list of qualifying for Rio.
That challenge starts with a tricky date against an improving French side who have had a series of close run outings against Ireland in the past 15 months, including four draws and a shared series in February in Dublin.
Gael Foulard’s extended panel is built mainly around the French Under-21 side that reached the Junior World Cup final in 2013 and has 15 players 23 or under on their pre-tournament list of 20 players.
Like Ireland, they put it up to the big boys at the World League semi-final in Antwerp and were left devastated by a 5-4 loss to Belgium in their quarter-final. They ended up seventh, ending on a high with a win over Pakistan.
As such, it’s an important test for Ireland in their first game on Saturday morning at 8.30am. They follow up against reigning Olympic and European champions Germany who have also won gold at the Champions Trophy and the World League semi-final in Argentina in the past year.
Belgium are the third group opponent on Tuesday with the Irish possibly feeling they owe Jeroen Delmee’s side a big battle after they were the recipients of a series of unjust decisions in their 2-1 win at the World League – the winning goal coming when Ireland had swapped out David Harte for the last few minutes in pursuit of a winner.
Germany – world number 3
Reigning champions, Germany are out for their third successive title in London off the back of some superb form that has seen Markus Weise’s side win gold at both the Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar and the World League semi-final in Argentina.
From the squad for the latter tournament – where a ticket to Rio was confirmed – they have made three changes. The influential Christopher Zeller is injured with a medial meniscus tear and is replaced by UHC Hamburg club mate Marco Miltkau. Timur Oruz steps out with Constantin Staib coming in while there is a reshuffle of goalkeepers with Andreas Spack coming in for Tobias Walter.
Double Olympic champion and co-captain of the team, Moritz Fürste returns to the squad. The German hockey hero had missed the ERGO Hamburg Masters as he had just become a father. He, along with Tobias Hauke and Christopher Ruhr, give the side serious star quality.
And Ruhr says that despite all their previous success, “everyone in the team is still hungry for more success; it doesn’t matter how many medals each of us has won in the past”.
** Click here for the full Christopher Ruhr interview
Belgium – world number 4
Jeroen Delmee will test some new faces in London with young stars like Matthew Cobbaert and Alexander Hendrickx among a couple of eye-catching changes from the side that finished second at the World League semi-final in Antwerp to earn an Olympic place.
Cobbaert is looking to add yet another European medal to his collection, earning silver at Under-16 before landing golds at Under-18 and Under-21 level, saying: “now we hope to get some titles with the senior national team”.
In total, the Belgians have made four switches from that team with the experienced Cedric Charlier and Alex de Paeuw also coming back while there are rare rests for Simon Gougnard and Thomas Briels – missing his first tournament in nine years – while the injured Dorian Thiery and Amaury Keusters also step out.
Silver in 2013; is London 2015 their time to make the breakthrough and win the gold?
** Click here to read full interview with Matthew Cobbaert
France – world number 17
Rapidly improving France missed out on an Olympic place from the World League semi-final but not before almost causing the shock of the tournament against Belgium, running them to a 5-4 quarter-final scoreline.
The twin towers of Victor Charlet – who provides the corner threat too – and Francois Scheefer bolster the backline while the Genestet brothers provide some much needed experience. Charles Masson – who grew up in Belgium – is a classy operator in midfield and will look to set free Jean-Laurent Kieffer and Gaspard Bamugarten.
Following relegation in 2011, France gained promotion in Vienna two years ago and, with an ambitious mindset, they will look to try and emulate their best ever finish, fourth, from back in 1970.
Ireland squad for European championships (August 22-30, London): Mathew Bell (Banbridge), Jonny Bruton (Three Rock Rovers), Peter Caruth (Monkstown), Chris Cargo (Racing Club de Bruxelles), Mitch Darling (Three Rock Rovers), David Fitzgerald (Monkstown), Paul Gleghorne (Lisnagarvey), Kyle Good (Monkstown), Ronan Gormley (Krefeld), Conor Harte (Racing Club de Bruxelles), David Harte (Kampong), John Jackson (Reading), Eugene Magee (Banbridge), Shane O’Donoghue (Dragons), Michael Robson (Annadale), Kirk Shimmins (UCD), Alan Sothern (Racing Club de Bruxelles), Michael Watt (Surbiton)
Saturday, August 22, 8:30am: Ireland vs France
Sunday, August 23, 8:30pm: Ireland vs Germany
Tuesday, August 25, 1:15pm: Ireland vs Belgium
Thursday, August 27: Classification matches
Saturday, August 29: Classification/finals
UK and Ireland – BBC (England, Scotland and Irish matches and Finals – BBC red button, BBC2 if England reaches finals)
- BBC Red Button – www.bbc.com/sport/0/hockey/33616830
- Star Sports – Qualification games and Finals – www.starsports.com/