Luke Madeley is raring to go to finally making his world ranking tournament debut at the FIH Series Finals this weekend in Le Touquet.
It forms the first phase of the Olympic qualifying process for the Irish men with the tournament following the same format as the women’s event which comes to a conclusion in Banbridge over the weekend.
Ireland start off with a date against Scotland on Saturday morning (10.15am Irish time – live on FIH.Live) before taking on Egypt a day later. They complete the group stage on Tuesday against minnows Singapore, hoping to come out on top to earn straight passage to the semi-finals.
For Madeley – who moves from Three Rock Rovers to KHC Leuven next season – he came within touching distance of the top level in December when he was part of the World Cup squad.
But he did not get any pitch time as he spend the fortnight in India as one of the reserves, along with Jeremy Duncan, waiting in the wings.
“It’s a lot different this week,” he told The Hook. “The World Cup was obviously a really good experience, being in that 20-man travelling squad.
But this is a completely different kettle of fish, knowing I am going to step on the pitch and compete with the lads. It’s really exciting!”
Reflecting on that odd experience, the former Irish Under-21 captain said it was tough to get his head around. On the one hand, there is the dream of playing in a World Cup; the other knowing it requires a team mate to suffer a misfortune.
“It was new for myself but it was new for Irish hockey as well. Being so far from home, it wasn’t practical to leave two guys waiting, training away by themselves.
“You have to plan for every situation. It was disappointing not to be in the 18-man squad but you had to keep training away, doing the physical work and be ready if and when the name gets called for whatever reason.“You never wish injury on anyone, especially because everyone in the squad has been so good to me since I came in and they are my friends now. You have to just be ready to step in! It was a strange one, waiting in the aisles, doing all the extra running after every game.”
After a super season on the club front, it has him hungry to make his mark on the French coastline and he believes the squad is in a good place.
The World Cup did not go to plan but there was plenty of honesty in the debrief and they squad and coaching team have pin-pointed a number of areas to work on.
Indeed, there was only a short break following the tournament before a core conditioning programme between December and March to set the base for 2019.
Beyond the physical side, there was recognition the side needed to adjust their approach in key areas.
“At the top level, it comes down to small margins. It was the China game that cost us. We didn’t play with enough tempo or put their defence under enough pressure so that’s been a focus since then, trying to play more direct and with more speed. It’s been massive from the coaching staff to push.
“There have also been stats floating about goals scored within nine yards part of the goal. It is about trying to get the ball into that part of the circle and then score from there.”
Coach Alexander Cox has also been looking to implement a zonal defensive format to mix and match with the famed man-to-man structure that marked their road to European bronze and the Olympic Games.“The zonal side has been part of Alexander’s plan for a while with the team. We trialed it before the World Cup but there was a few issues with it so we reverted back to man-to-man, something the guys know and are very proud of.
“But the zonal stuff we have worked on since the start of the year has been going well. There are lessons to be learned and new challenges but there have been tweaks made and it is definitely another string to the bow that we can bring to the game.”
It was practiced to good effect in two wins over the USA while the side finished off their preparatory matches with a win and a draw against the French.
Ireland arrived in France on Monday before taking in training and gym time on Tuesday and a practice match with Chile on Wednesday.
“We are here to do a job and that’s to finish top of the group and hopefully that extra few days can help us going into the semi-final which is the focus. That’s obviously the goal but you can’t look past anybody. Our whole focus is on Scotland.
“it has all been part of a six to seven month process and we need to hit our straps now.”
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