Conor Harte will become the fifth Irish man to reach 200 international caps this evening when he lines out to face Pakistan at Comber Road (7.30pm) on Thursday evening.
He becomes the first Munster man to hit the mark, following Dubliner Ronan Gormley and Ulster trio Eugene Magee, John Jackson and Michael Watt, beating his highly decorated twin brother David to the milestone.
The twins both made their debut in August 2006 with both forming part of the Irish team that won European bronze in 2015 and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games, the first hockey team to do so since 1908.
Like his brother, Conor has been a full-time player for the last number of years, first with SCHC in the Netherlands before joining Racing Club de Bruxelles at the top end of the Belgian league.
And Irish coach Craig Fulton says those experiences have been vital in elevating his game.
“Conor is a true professional and has really raised the bar in moving across to Europe for five or six years,” Fulton said. “He’s done immensely well to play for clubs of that size. He has brought back into the Irish team a European-style composure at the back.
“I think that we also are still to see the best of him; it’s still to come. We’re hoping this year and next year he can step further and bring all his experience to share with the group and we will be even more successful for it.”
And Fulton is encouraging a couple of other players to follow in his footsteps to Europe next season and take up professional contracts.
Lee Cole has confirmed a move to Royal Oree in Belgium while four others are also set to follow suit in the coming days and formally sign terms.
“For those playing abroad, they will usually have seven or eight hockey sessions a week. The clubs we have spoken to have helped produce the likes Ronan Gormley, David, Conor, Mitch Darling and Chris Cargo.
“A whole host of them went away at the right time for us and improved. What’s important for us is the club is accommodating for the international programme. There are times we need them and the clubs are obliging that Ireland come first.”
Ireland play the world number 14 side, Pakistan, again on Saturday and Sunday as well as part of the warm-up phase for July’s World League semi-final in Johannesburg where 2018 World Cup tickets are up for grabs.
It follows a couple of behind closed doors games against England at Bisham Abbey which Fulton was happy enough with as he fielded the likes of Daragh Walsh, Callum Robson and Sam O’Connor.
“It was tough but it’s always nice to play matches. You can train all you like but playing good teams like that starts the process in earnest once again. England are a few weeks away from World League 3 and are just back from the Azlan Shah so are up and running. We are starting on that line so it was good exercise.”
Three Rock’s Luke Madeley is set to make his debut on Saturday in the second match of the three-game series at Garvey.
“He’s been in the group for six months now and had a really consistent season, scoring some big goals at big times,” Fulton added: “We are trying to develop the next group of Under-21s because their tournament also starts in August.
“We don’t have a lot of games with the Under-21s so we need to get those players playing at a higher level. Pakistan is a great team to face on debut as they will show us some things that you don’t normally see. They’re nice and direct and very skilful so it’s a nice place to start.”
Indeed, Fulton is keen to get the Under-21s involved at regular intervals this summer, too. In contrast to the women’s setup, they will train together for the most part with the coach anticipating that some of the panel could well be called upon for the senior Euros.
“We are in a different age bracket with our senior team compared to the women. It means that some players may not be available for all the tournaments.
“It’s a two-pronged reasoning. We are using the environment and schedule to get the Under-21s in and working with them. On the back of that, if there are senior guys who cannot complete the full summer programme, the next guys will already be ready and waiting.”
Men’s senior international test match
Thursday: Ireland v Pakistan, 7.30pm, Comber Road
Saturday: Ireland v Pakistan, 2pm, Comber Road
Sunday: Ireland v Pakistan, 2pm, Comber Road
Thursday squad: David Harte (SV Kampong), Jamie Carr (Three Rock Rovers), Jonny Bell (Lisnagarvey), Lee Cole (Royal Oree), John Jackson (Bath Buccaneers), Stuart Loughrey (Hampstead & Westminster), Conor Harte (Racing Club de Bruxelles), Matthew Bell (Banbridge), Chris Cargo (Hampstead & Westminster), Shane O’Donoghue (Glenanne), Neal Glassey (Lisnagarvey), Kirk Shimmins (Pembroke), Sean Murray (Lisnagarvey), Eugene Magee (Banbridge), Jonny McKee (Banbridge), Matthew Nelson (Lisnagarvey), Alan Sothern (Pembroke), Jeremy Duncan (UCD)
Saturday: Jamie Carr (Three Rock Rovers), Mark Ingram (Pembroke), Paul Gleghorne (Lisnagarvey), Sam O’Connor (Glenanne), John Jackson (Bath Buccaneers), Conor Harte (Racing Club de Bruxelles), Luke Madeley (Three Rock Rovers), Matthew Bell (Banbridge), Chris Cargo (Hampstead & Westminster), Shane O’Donoghue (Glenanne), Sean Murray (Lisnagarvey), Stephen Cole (Monkstown), Drew Carlisle (Banbridge), Peter Caruth (Annadale), Julian Dale (Cork C of I), Owen Magee (Banbridge), Jonny McKee (Banbridge), Alan Sothern (Pembroke)