Irish coach Craig Fulton has laid out the roadmap to Bhubaneswar and the 2018 World Cup next November with a comprehensive plan of action for the next 10 months, leading up to the November 28 tip off.
It starts with a 24-player training camp in Malaga, Spain next week where Ireland will play Canada, Spain, USA and Scotland in a five-game tournament. From March 3 to 10, the squad will depart for the “perfect tournament” as they take on world number ones Australia, Olympic champions Argentina, India, England and hosts Malaysia at the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament in Ipoh.
In May, Germany come to Ireland for the first time since the UCD pitch opening in 2005 for a couple of games at Pembroke. France and the USA arrive in June and July for six more home games.
Having won the Hamburg Masters last year, Ireland have been given a return invite for that event which moves to Dusseldorf alongside Germany, France and Spain.
The panel will have some downtime in August before ramping up preparations again in October with a crucial six nations tournament in Valencia four weeks out from the World Cup.
There, it looks likely Ireland will be grouped with England, Australia and China though this remains to be formally confirmed by the FIH.
“They are nice teams to play who like to attack,” he told The Hook when that line-up was put to him. “We know a lot about England, they know a lot about us. Australia are always a great team to play and you know exactly where you stand. China is a bit of an unknown but they have a full time programme.”
The team that finishes fourth is eliminated while first place goes straight through to the quarter-finals; second and third go into a knock-out game with the crossovers aligned with Spain, France, New Zealand or Argentina.
“It’s a good opportunity to advance, big time. We want to get a quarter-final at least; bottom line, get out of our pool and then win again. We’re definitely getting stronger, fitter and I am confident we will bridge that gap in 2018.”
It follows a transitional 2017 in which the after-effects of the Rio effort meant a glut of new faces were assimilated very quickly. They negotiated a potentially fraught World League Round 2 in Stormont when experienced players were either on a break or dropped like injured flies in the week leading up to the tournament.
Automatic World Cup qualification was brilliantly won in South Africa with a 1-0 win over New Zealand. The Europeans started strong, tying with Germany, but ended with Fulton’s side hanging on to sixth place ahead of Austria.
Given the circumstances, Fulton looks back on it as “a massive year” for the Green Machine’s overall programme.
“A few stats put it into perspective; from 2015, there were 10 changes from the team that won World League 2 in San Diego to 2017 in Stormont. From the team that qualified in Belgium for Rio in 2015 to the 2017 team in Jo’burg, there were eight changes.
“For the Euros team that won bronze to the one that was a goal away from knocking England out, there were eight changes. Within a 20-month period, we have changed more than half. We still keep getting results when other countries are making less changes.”
The nature of the changes, though, is part and parcel of Ireland’s lot. Whereas other countries with full time programmes can roll with the changes with financial security, the straddle between professional attitude and amateur status means something has to give at some point with work or exams taking precedence.
Mikey Watt retired while Mitch Darling, Kirk Shimmins, John Jackson, Ronan Gormley, Chris Cargo and Alan Sothern – among others – all took breaks at different phases.
“It’s off the back of Rio. It became difficult to sustain things with six or seven guys taking sabbaticals for the next qualifying block which was within five months.
“Where you have an experienced group who can maybe not continue because of where they are in their lives, that was always going to be the challenge post-Olympics where we had to find that depth. Fortunately, our younger players stepped into the breach and did well early – Ben Walker, Neal Glassey, Matthew Nelson, Sean Murray for example.”
That they did so well was a god-send as they took to the international game quicker than most. That they had to make the leap highlights the importance of having an ongoing Under-21 programme.
Such things cost, though, alongside the extensive senior schedule. With no sponsor currently on board, Fulton expressed his frustration over a lack of movement to support the workers in his team and also in other Irish minority sports.
It follows a lack of follow-through from positive talks with the then Minister for State for Sport Patrick O’Donovan at the back end of 2016. The Minister engaged with a number of sports organisations regarding proposals for tax breaks to companies who support international athletes who work full-time to make things work for each side.
But, since O’Donovan’s move to finance, Fulton says that there has been little to no progression.
“You have really positive conversations and you hope the right outcome for you, specifically, in a big pool of Irish and minority sports,” he said. “For whatever reason, there was less funding given. The men and the women getting to World Cups seem to have been pushed to the sideline for the mainline sports that are on tv all the time.”
As such, the experienced players in his panel have to plan their holiday days accordingly while numerous stars – like Mitch Darling, Kirk Shimmins and Ronan Gormley among others – took breaks at different times in 2017. It means Fulton must chop and change his squad.
“We have to pace ourselves and be smart about what senior players can and can’t do, what leave they can take.”
For the tournament in Spain, John Jackson, Shimmins, Darling, Eugene Magee and Walker all step out while David Harte is still playing in the Malaysia Hockey League.
The good news is the programme of matches is set in stone and funded for 2018. Should further financing not be forthcoming, training days will be adjusted to fit.
“We can possibly take a few days away from it down the line but [extra funding] will help us with building a bigger squad and giving younger players experience [for the Tokyo qualifying campaign]. We haven’t had a confirmed financial meeting but that will happen soon where we put it on the table. Everything is booked for the first six months of the year and will definitely happen.
“It doesn’t mean it is all solved. We still don’t have a sponsor for a team that has gone from 15 to 10 in the world, qualified for the World Cup and had a good Europeans.
“We are tracking well, though, and have a great programme for 2018. We just need to balance it out and get the right group of players out at the right times.”
Ireland squad (five nations tournament, Malaga, January 29 to February 3): Jonny Bell (Lisnagarvey), Matthew Bell (Crefelder THC), Lee Cole (Royal Oree), Stuart Loughrey (Hampstead & Westminster), Paul Gleghorne (Lisnagarvey), Conor Harte (Racing Club de Bruxelles), Luke Madeley (Three Rock Rovers), Sam O’Connor (Glenanne), Stephen Cole (Monkstown), Shane O’Donoghue (Glenanne), Johnny McKee (Banbridge), Michael Robson (Lisnagarvey), Sean Murray (Lisnagarvey), Chris Cargo (Hampstead & Westminster), Daragh Walsh (Three Rock Rovers), Alan Sothern (Pembroke), Neal Glassey (Lisnagarvey), Mathew Nelson (Lisnagarvey), Julian Dale (Cork C of I), Peter Caruth (Annadale), Jeremy Duncan (Herakles), Mark Ingram (Pembroke), Jamie Carr (Three Rock Rovers), David Fitzgerald (Monkstown)
5 Nations fixture schedule (all times local)
January 29: Ireland vs Canada, 2.30pm, Carranque
January 30: Ireland vs Spain, 5pm, Carranque
February 1: Ireland vs Scotland, 5pm, CHP Benalmadena
February 3: Ireland vs USA, 2pm, CHP Benalmadena