Ireland’s men got a measure of the challenge they need to overcome in Rio next August after a pair of losses to world number five side Belgium in Cape Town over the weekend.
Reflecting on the squad’s warm weather tour, coach Craig Fulton said: “We have had a tough Olympic training camp in Cape Town. 8 games in 11 days, as well as training, have been invaluable for the whole squad. The hot and windy conditions made it realistic conditions for the Olympic Games in Rio. It has been a good camp, and a good foundation to start 2016 for us.”
Fulton’s side edged out the Belgians in the group stages of the European Championships last August en route to a bronze medal. That outcome ultimately cost Jeroen Delmee his job as head coach and, under Shane MacLeod, Belgium looked a much more lively force with the Olympics on the horizon.
Ireland fell 6-2 on Saturday, the Belgians pulling clear in the second half after Stu Loughrey and Kirk Shimmins had kept the game close at 3-2.
Sunday was much closer, albeit with a similar final result of 6-3. Alan Sothern’s drag-flick and a superb counter attack goal finished off by Mitch Darling tied the game up at 2-2.
It capped a fine period of control from the Irish, winning a series of penalty corners but their good work was undone soon after as two breathtaking pieces of skill at the start of the third quarter turned the game.
Sebastian Dockier and Florent van Aubel moved Belgium clear once again before Shane O’Donoghue whipped home a goal from a corner to reduce the deficit to 4-3.
Dockier’s second goal, a deflection into the top corner, and a second from Tom Boon killed off the tie at 6-3.
The result came at the end of an intense week of eight matches in 11 days in Cape Town. Importantly, Ireland had the edge over Canada – a side they will play in the group stages in Rio – with two wins and two draws from their four meetings as part of the series.