International hockey will come to Cork for the first time in eight years with European champions the Netherlands in early July as preparations ramp up for Ireland’s first Olympic challenge in over a century.
It means a homecoming for goalkeeper David Harte, from Kinsale, who has not played in Munster in any competitive shape or form in six years, a 2-1 win for Pembroke against Cork C of I in the old Irish Hockey League.
“It should be a fantastic experience,” Harte said of the game which take place at the Mardyke on July 4th and 6th, the first international games to be played in Cork since the Celtic Cup in 2008 at Garryduff.
“It’s not every day you get the number two side in the world in front of you, the silver medalists from the London Olympics and the European champions. It should be a spectacle of hockey.”
It is part of an intense three months of matches in the build-up to Rio with ten challenge matches in Ireland along with a six nations tournament in Valencia also in the mix.
The decision to hand games to Cork is designed to galvanise and widen the support base of the team, giving as many people on the island the chance to see the Green Machine up close and personal.
For Harte, he is hoping to see a big crowd, something he is getting more and more used to with his Dutch club side SV Kampong in Utrecht and with Dabang Mumbai in the Hockey India League.
Looking at the Indian experience, he said that was “beyond anything I ever imagined in my first year”.
“You get tens of thousands of people at your matches and barely can get off a team bus at matches without being dragged everywhere with lads looking for photographs and the odd shout of Godzilla when they see me towering above them. It’s a great life experience above just a sporting one.”
At times, games with Dabang – a Hindi word for fearless – can feature up to 30,000 screaming fans. With Kampong, it has been a busy spell of high profile matches.
The EHL KO16 and KO8 in Amsterdam saw his club sweep to a 6-1 win over French champions Racing Club de France and 5-1 against the German winners Rot Weiss Koln.
Both were played out in front of a packed main stand in the Wagener Stadium and those crowds followed through to pack the ground again for the Dutch playoffs last weekend.
Unfortunately, after winning the first leg of their best of three series Kampong were denied a place in the final in contentious circumstances as they ended up losing 3-2 in extra time in the second leg and lost game three.
Nonetheless, they could pin down an EHL ticket once again if they win game two of their current playoff series with HGC having won 5-1 on Thursday.
“There was huge disappointment in the manner we lost to Amsterdam, the second game in particular with red cards and penalty decisions going against us.
“Nonetheless, it was an unbelievable experience being in front of a packed Wagener Stadium two days in a row with phenomenal support from my own club.
“We know we have a job to get back into the EHL now which is up for grabs, Saturday and, if needed, Sunday. We were seven points off the playoffs at the turn of the year so everyone would have written us off to even get this far.”
After that, direct focus on the FINAL4 comes into view as Harte bids to become the first Irish man to win the title. They start off with a semi-final spot against Atlètic Terrassa.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity to win a major tournament; it’s the furthest we have ever gone and it is a tournament we relish being in. To get in the FINAL4 is fantastic but we have to make sure this weekend that we get there again next year and do the job.”
While these games are being played in front of huge crowds from a hockey perspective, Harte says that there is no reason why Ireland’s games in the summer should draw decent audiences as they embark on the big push for Rio.
“It’s a reflection of the current popularity of the game in Ireland, that you only get one man and his dog but we have quashed that impression a bit in 2012 when we had packed crowds for the Olympic qualifier and the President. It was a great spectacle and it showed us what can be done in Ireland.
“We’ve taken the step passed the nearly men tag from my time when we missed out on Beijing and then seven seconds from the end in 2012. Qualification ended that and we topped it off winning bronze at the European Championships. Hopefully, its an upward curve.”
And Harte says that the side is not feeling external pressure to make a big statement on the world stage – similar to Irish cricket at the 2007 World Cup – to push the side further into the public conscience. He says all the pressure and motivation comes from within the group.
“Getting ourselves to the Games was step one. We always set bold targets internally as a group but I don’t think there is added pressure on anyone’s shoulders going towards Rio.
“There’s always pressure, wherever we go there is pressure from ourselves and what we expect ourselves to achieve rather than outside pressure. It’s our own internal standards and belief than we can play these top teams.”