Craig Fulton says the player pathway now open in Irish hockey to the top level of the world game can only help guard against players switching to Great Britain.
Ireland played in their first Olympic Games in the modern era and are now looking to qualify for their first Word Cup since 1990, a task that looks even more achievable since the competition’s expansion to 16 teams.
With Ireland’s Under-21 side also playing in the top tier of European competition in 2017, the ability to play hockey at the highest level has never been stronger.
Fulton says Ireland’s rise has created a new “reality” that can dissuade eligible players from following the route taken by Iain Lewers, Mark Gleghorne, David Ames and Ian Sloan.
“If we hadn’t qualified for Rio and there was no reality around it,” he told The Hook. “You would lose a lot more players.
“The fact that it has been done, players can see a way through [to the senior team] with an Under-21 A division tournament for August; there’s already been three guys of 18-years-old who have been capped.
“A good crop of 19 and 20 year olds are in the training panel. If you can’t see a path for opportunity there, I don’t think you will see one.”
The question was raised to the national coach following GB’s recent announcement that there will be up to 40 full and part-time contracts available for both men and women – 80 in total – for the next Olympic cycle with UK Sport committing £18 million (up from £16.1m) to the elite teams.
In addition, a number of spaces have opened up in the English setup of late with Simon Mantell, Dan Shingles, Dan Fox and Ali Brogdon retiring before Christmas while 32-year-old Lewers – despite being one of GB’s top performers – has been deemed surplus to requirements due to his age.
After a low-key Olympics, getting knocked out in the group stages, and a middling Under-21 World Cup, Bobby Crutchley well be looking to cast a wider net to a panel that only had one player Under-25 in the summer with Ulster players a potential target.
“I can understand from a financial point of view, sure.” Fulton admits. “But from a playing point of view, the pathway through to Tokyo is very alive in Ireland.
“Club hockey is definitely improving, the main clubs are pushing a lot of their youngsters as well which is a great thing to see. From an international point of view, the Under-21 programme is strong.
“The numbers of Under-21s in the training panels is good and then the Under-18s will feed that. I think there is a real opportunity to see a pathway through to the international team to World Cups and the Olympics.
“To get onto one of those contracted positions, they are already named – 40 for men, 40 for women. They have already looked at their Under-21 grouping. It would be very interesting if someone wanted to change or turn now.
“It still means another three years for those who have been capped. In every age group, there are talented players who are going to look for opportunities. We have highlighted a number of the Under-18s to come into the Under-21 group and they have their opportunity now.
“A lot are training in the national squad. It’s all part of a plan to keep them training and if they show they are good enough, the gap will be smaller [to senior selection] and they are closer to being ready. You can’t assume someone at 18 is ready to fly. Some guys have different maturity levels.”
Looking back on 2016, Fulton hailed the commitment of his entire panel for putting everything into the programme to get as much as they could from the resources available.
“Going into Olympic year was always going to be tough. There’s no real tournament so everything you do is a platform in your own preparation which is challenging because of the financial side of things.
“It meant we were always up against it, getting our guys available. They did an amazing job with the sabbaticals that they took. It was an awesome squad effort to get through the summer block of preparation for Rio.
“It was just a difficult period to fundraise for our own programme and is something we never want to go through again and something we are putting plans in place for.”
As for the Olympic tournament, Ireland came close to a major result on a couple of occasions, falling just short against India and eventual winners Argentina. A win in either tie could have put them in position for a quarter-final spot.
With a few months to reflect on the tournament, he said: “Looking back, going in 12th, coming out 10th. I look back on it proudly. We knew India would be ‘the’ game’; we put a lot of work into it and came close. It wasn’t for lack of chances and it wasn’t that they out-played us. It could have gone either way.
“Three of our pool got through to the semis. It shows how strong it was and then our results against those teams who got through. Holland was the only one who got one over on us but we actually had the best stats we have ever had against them – most circle entries, shots, corners. They were just that much better than us in the D.
“We did get fortunate with Germany getting the result against Argentina to keep us in it. I like that the group went all the way to the wire. The reason we went to Argentina in the build-up was to play them because we knew it could always comes down to that game.
“The objective was to get seven points, a win over Canada and India and then a point off one of the other teams.”
In the end, it came down to the date with Argentina when a win would have seen Ireland advance. They were level at 2-2 with nine minutes to go before Gonzalo Peillat fired home another rocket to kill the tie.
Los Leones were the oldest side in the competition with a wealth of know-how in big games, something Fulton says was key to their success.
“Experience counts in large amounts. You can’t under-estimate having players with Olympic experience, knowing what it is about and training then with that for the next four years. Changing the mindset and going back and doing it again.
“You can’t tell me those teams who won medals haven’t been there before. GB’s women and Kate [Richardson-Walsh] with her Olympics before her knew what to say, when to say it, what to do. It’s just such a process that takes a long time to know how to play the tournament, what to expect and how to get the best out of yourself.
“Argentina had shown real success in the World Cup, finishing third, beating a lot of top teams. They went full time and made it count with that experience.
“They got a lot of the balance right – a lot of the conditioning and the tactics. They changed their methods and changed their team the least amount, least rotation. They settled on a set 13 players, which is old school but it worked with a weapon like Peillat on the flick.”