Anxious Olympic wait for Oceania Cup outcome

The Irish senior men’s panel will gather together in Dublin at the early hours of Sunday morning to watch online their Rio 2016 fate decided by Australia and, more than likely, New Zealand in the Oceania Cup final.

Should the world number one Kookaburra side win the tournament, it will hand Ireland their first Olympic hockey berth since 1908 and will be the first team sport from the island confirmed for the Games since 1948.

It makes for a tense few days for Craig Fulton. His side did all they could to affect their chances earlier this year, crucially finishing fifth at World League Round 3 in Antwerp in July, beating higher ranked Pakistan and Malaysia.

The Irish men's team prior to their third fixture against Argentina last week. Pic: Adrian Boehm

The Irish men’s team prior to their third fixture against Argentina last week. Pic: Adrian Boehm

That outcome saw Ireland miss out on one of the three automatic tickets to Rio but they were placed third on a list of lucky losers.

Since then, they have been playing the waiting game for each continental championship to play out. Each tournament offers one Olympic place but if the continental winner has already qualified via the World League, the next ticket goes to a lucky loser.

As such, Ireland moved up to first reserve following favourable results at the European and Pan-American Championships, leaving them requiring one more favour. It means all eyes will be on the live streams starting at 4am on Sunday morning when the final tips off.

At this stage, Australia have qualified for the final while New Zealand are expected to join them with only Fiji – a side they will expect to run up double figures against – standing in their way after an earlier 37-0 win over Samoa this week.

Coach Craig Fulton said of the situation: “There is nothing more we can do to qualify for Rio2016. As Australia has already qualified, we’re relying on them to beat New Zealand in the Oceania Cup final.

“If they can’t beat them then all credit to New Zealand on the day for their victory. We will be watching in the early hours of Sunday morning hoping the result goes our way.”

Striker Peter Caruth said it has been an anxious few months: “You want to not think about it but you can’t help but think about it! [Waiting] is the hardest thing to do. We’re all very excited and very nervous at the same time.”

“It’s been hard to stay focussed on our training and it will be hard to watch when it comes to Sunday, knowing we need just one result to take us to Rio and the dream.”

In the normal run of things, Australia should have too much for the Black Sticks. The world champions won 3-1 in the preliminary stages on Thursday morning and have won the last eight editions of the Oceania Cup.

New Zealand’s need, however, is much greater and, on home soil, they are sensing some blood against their biggest rivals.

The Aussies have rested several of their 2014 World Cup winning panel while head coach Graham Reid did not travel with the side, leaving assistant Paul Gaudoin in charge.

Indeed, the system set up by the International Hockey Federation that sees a qualified nation able to use tournaments as a testing ground against nations still to qualify has drawn widespread criticism.

Many top coaches have called for the continental championships to be played prior to the World League Round 3.

The suggestion would eliminate the waiting period and give sides direct targets for qualification, allowing players to enjoy the moment on the pitch rather than, hopefully,12 time zones away in the early hours of the morning.

If Australia do not win, then it comes down to an even more muddy path. The African championships offers the final place to the Olympics; South Africa are the favourites but their Olympic committee have previously stated they would not send the side on this basis.

Should they not take up an Olympic invitation from the FIH, the next best placed side on the World League list would take the spot.

However, there have been a number of behind the scenes discussions and so it is not likely to be a cut and dried case. The African championships runs until November 1st in Randburg.

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