Ireland’s men return to competitive action this weekend for the first time since World League Round 2 as they take on England in a couple of uncapped matches in Bisham Abbey.
It starts a spell of five games in nine days with Pakistan coming to Lisnagarvey for a three-game series.
Since then, Alan Sothern, Kirk Shimmins and John Jackson have all returned to training having taken breaks in the wake of the Olympic Games and will be available for a busy summer.
There are injury issues with Paul Gleghorne an ongoing concern while Michael Robson has a back problem to deal with while Keith O’Hare is also working through an injury.
David and Conor Harte, following extended club seasons in Holland and Belgium respectively, will take a short break to rest after intensive seasons but will be back in the fold soon enough.
Fulton also says that this summer – with the World League Semi-Finals in July and the Europeans in August – there is some serious juggling required to get the most out of his panel, especially the players who are full-time employees.
It is an ongoing issue that Fulton has sought to get support from the Irish government but formal plans have yet to arrive despite Ireland moving up to ninth in the world.
“Guys had to take leave for World League 2 then three weeks of leave for World League 3 and then another two weeks for the Euros,” he told Dublin City FM’s Declan Hughes.
“That’s getting up on over ten weeks of holiday. Some of the senior guys are stumped. It means we have to chose which basket we put our eggs into, World League 2, 3 or the Euros? We have to balance it out and make it work.”
Fulton had spoke of trying to get some kind of support structure in place last December with government and this campaign remains ongoing.
“We really are looking for support in getting certain senior players that are full-time workers further leave through government or Hockey Ireland. We are working behind the scenes to financially help and support them.
“It’s a double-edged sword. [It’s great] to be competing in all these tournaments [at this level] but we need to do more behind the scenes to get everyone available and then push on into the top eight in the world.”
Indeed, Ireland are the only side in the top 14 in the world not full-time, showing the juggling act.
Nonetheless, Fulton is looking forward to the summer, saying it is “an exciting phase for us”.
“We have some senior players back and youngsters coming through. It was nice for the season to finish up with so many of the guys doing well, setting the standard at the EY finals. Hopefully, we can kick on and use that form and put it into our national programme.”
Fulton is set to use a young panel for the English games and then reassess for the lively challenge of Pakistan.
“They had a strong showing against New Zealand and Australia and they have their sights firmly set on the World Cup after the disappointment of the Olympics. They are a great team to play against; fast and skillful and unorthodox at the best of times which is something we need to get used to.”
After those series, selection will be made for the World League, which take place in South Africa in July, and will play together for the Hamburg Masters against Germany, Spain and Austria.
The World League is the centre-piece with five tickets guaranteed – though a seventh or eight place finish may be enough – for the 2018 World Cup.
There, the focus is very much geared towards the opening game against the Johannesburg hosts, a key tie in landing a quarter-final spot, before facing Belgium, Egypt and Germany.
“We want to finish top three in the pool,” Fulton adds. “We have a good opportunity here but need to be in the best possible shape.”
As such, pinning down a quarter-final berth is critical. After that, it is something of a lottery with Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain and Japan in the other pool.
Indeed, trying to predict which opponent he would like to play or otherwise is a mug’s game.
“Who knows what will happen! In Rio, everyone wanted to avoid Australia and then they finished down the pool and it changed the dyanmics.
“So you can’t really plan but usually there are the ones you want to avoid and then take your shot at any of the other sides. That’s all crystal-balling and it never really works out the way you expect!
“From where we have come from, top three is definitely manageable.”
The full squad for the Pakistan series will be named following the England games.
Ireland squad for England games: Jonny Bell (Lisnagarvey), Lee Cole (Monkstown), Drew Carlisle (Banbridge), Sam O’Connor (Glennane), John Jackson (Bath Buccaneers), Stuart Loughrey (Hampstead & Wetminster), Christopher Cargo (Hampstead & Westminster), Daragh Walsh (Three Rock Rovers), Shane O’Donoghue (Glenanne), Neil Glassey (Lisnagarvey), Callum Robson (Annadale), Stephen Cole (Monkstown), Eugene Magee (Banbridge), Johnny McKee (Banbridge), Matthew Nelson (Lisnagarvey), Owen Magee (Banbridge), Jeremy Duncan (UCD), Julian Dale (Cork C of I), Jamie Carr (Three Rock Rovers), Mark Ingram (Pembroke Wanderers)
Saturday, May 27: Ireland vs England, 2pm, Bisham Abbey
Sunday, May 28: Ireland vs England, 2pm, Bisham Abbey
Thursday, June 1: Ireland v Pakistan, 7.30pm, Comber Road
Saturday, June 3: Ireland v Pakistan, 2pm, Comber Road
Sunday, June 4: Ireland v Pakistan, 2pm, Comber Road
Thursday, June 22: Ireland v Spain, 4.45pm, Hamburg
Friday, June 23: Ireland v Austria, 4.45pm, Hamburg
Sunday, June 25: Ireland v Germany, 12.30pm, Hamburg