Final preparations in place for Olympic qualifiers for both sides as China visit Dublin this weekend

Ireland’s men are to play recently-crowned European and reigning world champions Belgium in an away international next month after two games with France in Bordeaux to prepare for their upcoming Olympic qualifying double-header with Canada in Vancouver, writes John Flack.

The women’s build-up to their double-header with Canada at Donnybrook has also been finalised, with three games against China taking place over this week and two in Germany in October ahead of their Tokyo bid.

Shirley McCay could reach the 300-cap mark in the lead-up to the Olympic qualifiers. Pic: Inpho

The second game in Mannheim will be a proud occasion for Pegasus player Shirley McCay, who will reach a memorable milestone by winning her 300th cap, provided she stays injury-free in the interim.

The men’s game with Belgium will take place there on October 15 with the venue to be confirmed as the host country awaits expressions of interest from its constituent clubs in staging the fixture.

Before that, newly appointed Ireland interim coach Mark Tumilty will have his first opportunity to see his squad in competitive action in two games against France on October 1-2.

The three matches should provide an ideal build-up to the showdown with Canada, scheduled for the last weekend in October, according to Ireland captain Jonny Bell.

The Lisnagarvey defender said: “It will be excellent preparation, playing probably the best team in the world at the minute in Belgium.

“That’s obviously going to be a really tough game but it’s always good to test yourself against the best.

“France have been one of our big rivals over the years and a team we’ve had a lot of tough battles with and they have gone from strength to strength so, again, that’s going to be tough but it’s good preparation going into the Canada matches.”

Bell has welcomed the appointment of  Ulster man Tumilty to replace Alexander Cox, who quit after a year in the job following a disappointing European Championship campaign in Antwerp last month.

The 31-year-old added: “Mark is a highly respected coach and somebody I’ve played under and thoroughly enjoyed playing under, he’s an excellent motivator and man-manager and has a really good knowledge of the game.”

Jonny Bell is looking forward to working with Mark Tumilty. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“I think there’s no better man to come in at this late stage and try to ignite something and create a spark so I am really delighted he’s going to be involved and I’m looking forward to working with him.

“With his personality and the sort of character that Mark is and the traits that he has as a person and as a coach, I know that he’ll be a good fit for us.

“I think he’ll get the best out of the players and I think that’s all he can really do in this short six-week period, get the guys playing to the best of their ability.”

“He doesn’t have a lot of time to come in and put his own imprint on things and he doesn’t have a development phase coming into the job with a short window to try and make a difference.

“I think that’s all he can really do in this short six-week period, get the guys playing with a smile on their faces again.

“So it’s a matter of getting everyone maximising their potential, we have an incredible opportunity ahead and there’s no reason why we can’t grasp that opportunity.”

Ireland’s women will have five matches to prepare for their home Olympic qualifiers with Canada on November 2 and 3.

The build-up starts with three fixtures against China in Dublin on Saturday, Sunday (4.30pm, Belfield) and next Tuesday at UCD although the final game may be switched to the new national training centre at Abbotstown which is almost ready.

Then Ireland are off to Mannheim for two internationals against Germany on October 23/25, the second of which should see the country’s most-capped sportswoman McCay reach the 300 mark.

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