Le Touquet will always hold a special place for the Harte household as the French coastal venue brought international debuts for David, Conor and Emer all on the same weekend.
The twins are back in town for the FIH Series Finals this weekend, pursuing the Olympic goal once again. For Conor, it is his fourth time at the venue but he almost missed that first one at the 2006 Celtic Cup as he took in another celebration much closer to home.“Basically, I was a non-travelling reserve and had not been able to give my girlfriend Leagh [now his wife] and answer whether I could go or not to her debs!” he reminisced.
“The team was selected last minute and I didn’t make it I was able to go! I was suited and booted and on a bus to the venue when I got an SMS (showing how long ago it was now!) from Dave Passmore saying ‘we’ve two injuries to two defenders, need you to fly out tomorrow morning at 7.30am’.
“The glamour! I genuinely remember showing Leagh the text message asking her to also read it to make sure it was real and I wasn’t making it up! I also think I may have struggled to reply due to lack of credit!
“Bear in mind I was after a few cokes at this stage! So I stayed at the debs until the end, got picked up at early o’clock the next morning by my Dad who had messaged me saying ‘get on the water’ when I told him I got called up the night before! A wise man.”
He arrived to hear Ireland had lost to Scotland in the opening game as he put his bag onto his makeshift extra bed in Paddy Brown and Adam Pritchard’s room. The rest was something of a blur.
“I just remember being excited and determined to make the most out of the whole experience! I don’t really remember the game or anything but I do remember the high fives with all the lads before the game.
“And I do remember getting a taste of international hockey. Dave got his first cap too and I think I may have been more nervous for him being the last line of defence. All in all an incredible day for us both and also with Emer our sister getting her first cap that same day too!”
Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since then. That loss to Scotland was the second last time Ireland have been beaten by their Celtic rivals, the most recent coming two months after that with the Green Machine unbeaten in 20 meetings since.
Conor has run up 234 caps, the denomination of time he uses to measure his relationship with his wife.
“When people used to ask how many years we were together, I would say the number of caps I was on instead as Leagh was with me for the very first!”
Those years marked a kind of year zero for the men’s team with Ireland hovering around 20th in the world, rising through the list to be European bronze medalists and qualify for the Olympics and the World Cup.
Always a way to get what you need physically with no gym & very little equipment! @IreMenHockey working hard and getting the gains here in Le Touquet! 💪🏼🏑 #RoadToTokyo #FIHSeriesFinals pic.twitter.com/MW0C7QzDfe
— Lisa Costley (@LisaCostley) June 13, 2019
December’s trip to Delhi, though, did not go exactly to plan and Ireland bowed out at the group stage, their first time finishing below ranking for over a decade.
It was a tricky year with the full impact of Craig Fulton’s departure to Belgium and the short timespan to introduce a new coaching regime proving tough to manage.
With 2019 being a vital year in the Olympic process, there was little time to lick wounds.
“Believe it or not, we had only maximum two weeks off post World Cup because we finished much sooner than we had hoped for.
“We literally hit the ground running and were all given a heavy, heavy gym and running program by our excellent staff who created top quality programmes for us between December and March.
“We made massive gains in those three or four months as we identified we weren’t fit, strong or powerful enough at the World Cup.
“We knew we could be better and to be fair the entire squad put the head down and worked extremely hard. Its only now we are seeing the differences and making strides.”
The squad got back together on the hockey-front in March with camps in Dublin and Kampong. It also encompassed a “very open” debrief as they sought to put things right for the Road to Tokyo.
“We identified a number of key areas where we had to improve and I think we are getting there. Small details and a sharp focus can be hugely beneficial in the long run.“Maybe the World Cup was what we needed – a bit of a stock take where we are and were and what we needed to improve to get to where we want.
“To be fair, for this group and the men’s team over the past 10 years, we’ve been very fortunate with having successful tournament after tournament, qualifying for Olympics, world cups, medalling at a European Cup etc so the World Cup felt odd and unfamiliar territory!”
And they have the chance to start putting things right against the Scots early on Saturday morning (10.15am Irish time – live on the FIH.Live website), before facing Egypt on Sunday and Singapore on Tuesday.
Ireland are top seeds but Harte has been through enough of these events to know not to be complacent.
“I think if you’re not wary of every team here, you will create problems! We’ve learned over the past number of years to respect your opponent above all else, negate their strengths and play to ours and trust our plan and ability.
“Its all a process and starts in the mind! Scotland always have good teams and it won’t be any different here. Individually, we must execute our roles and collectively perform. Like any tournament, you must build throughout it and be under no illusions that game one will be a 10/10. But if it is – great!”
Men’s FIH Series Finals, Pool A (all at Le Touquet Paris Plage, France – Irish times)
Saturday: Ireland v Scotland, 10.15am (Irish time); Egypt v Singapore, 12.30pm
Sunday: Scotland v Singapore, 10.15am; Ireland v Egypt, 12.30pm
Tuesday: Scotland v Egypt, 12.30pm; Ireland v Singapore, 2.45pm