“I don’t even want to know the stats!” Craig Fulton replies when presented with the impressive run of form the Irish men are on, cutting off The Hook mid-sentence.
The Green Machine added a 2-1 challenge match win over New Zealand on Monday afternoon to their repertoire in Johannesburg, adding to their run of 11 wins in their last 12 capped matches. Indeed, they have suffered just one loss in 2017 in 16 games all told.
The coach, though, is anxious to read as little as possible into that run of form as the real business approaches and the battle to pin down a first men’s World Cup berth since 1990.
“It sets us up for a fall!” he adds. It’s pleasing [to be winning games] but we have won nothing yet and haven’t qualified. If we win all the ‘wrong games’ and don’t qualify, it’s pointless.
“That’s worst thing for me and the group – to start believing in stuff like that, that we are unstoppable when we go into the game against South Africa or Egypt. If we are not where we need to be then all that goes out the window.”
Nonetheless, there is confidence to be garnered from the performances since the turn of the year. In the wake of Rio, many players were forced to take a break from the international game, owing their employers holiday time.
There have been injuries, too, with Michael Robson, John Jermyn and Peter Caruth all available until ailments befell them, meaning that just nine Olympians were around for World League Round 2. Now, only eight are in situ in South Africa in spite of John Jackson and Alan Sothern’s welcome return.
But among those issues, Ireland have regenerated well with the likes of Sean Murray, Jonny McKee, Matthew Nelson and Jeremy Duncan quickly forming new understandings.
“We have produced good results through adversity because the team has changed so much. That is a big tick for the group, the leaders and the youngsters that have come in. It’s really refreshing. We put a lot of emphasis on the culture in the team and everyone is responding.
“Everyone’s happy to be playing. Alan Sothern has had a break and come back refreshed, Jacko the same and doing really well. It’s a good place to be.”
There is one very notable absentee. Ronan Gormley will miss just a second world ranking tournament in the last decade as he misses out on the Irish men’s World Cup qualifying bid in Johannesburg which gets underway next Sunday.
Since 2007, the defender has only missed out on 2014’s Champions Challenge I event in Malaysia in an incredible career, taking part in 18 of the last 19 events, amassing a record 256 caps.
Fulton confirmed his exclusion was not a decision based on form but was “inevitable at some point” as work reasons barred the 34-year-old from being involved this week and also August’s Euros.
“He’s not able to get the time off because he has taken a lot of time off in the last 18 months,” Fulton confirmed. “You can’t replace Ronan’s experience so that’s a big challenge.
“We’d known since before Hamburg that he wasn’t going to be able to do anything in this block. It’s inevitable at some point that it would happen and has happened to many other seniors. John Jackson, Mitch Darling and so on.”
It opens the door for Stu Loughrey to make a return to tournament action in defence with Stephen Cole another back in the frame in midfield.
“[Their selection] was coming off the back of the England and Pakistan series. They settled well and with Michael Robson injured and Ronan unavailable, the dynamic has changed a bit.
“Stephen Cole hasn’t had a lot of tournament experience but he has a lot of hockey experience and he fits in nicely there.”
In comparison to the Olympic build-up, Fulton says that this week he aims to not over-analyse the opposition – starting with South Africa on Sunday – in the final lead-in to the World League.
“I used to do a lot of the video work for the first two teams in the preparation week and then let the other games run their course. We will keep it simple and the focus is firmly on what we do.
“Before, I went into a lot of depth and detail. We are a young group and they don’t need to know all that. We had a really experienced group [in Rio] who are used to that kind of information and know what you are talking about. With a young group and overloading them too soon, it’s counter-productive and can stifle them.
“There will be recce going on because we need to have our ducks in a row for the first game and it’s nice to play strong preparation games against New Zealand and Australia. They will put us into a test situation which should have us ready for a strong South African team.”
Looking at the first opponents, many of the side are well known to Fulton. Jethro Eustice and Gowan Jones both played in Ireland with Pembroke and Corinthian.
Fulton’s time in the South African squad over-lapped with Austin Smith; Tim Drummond played at SCHC with David and Conor Harte and so forth.
The coach reckons the hosts are experienced at the back with youthful flyers up front, similar to Ireland, with ambitions of playing an attacking style.
For South Africa, there is plenty for them to put right after a couple of tricky years. In 2015, they only finished fourth in Cape Town in World League Round 2.
Rio qualification via the African Cup of Nations was not deemed enough for their Olympic council to take up a Rio invite, meaning they have plenty to prove.
“They have their own pressures; they didn’t go to Rio and didn’t get out of World League Round 2 [in 2015] in Cape Town. A home tournament can be the best place to be or can turn into a very difficult place to be if you don’t get results in front of a home crowd.
“I can’t say much more than that because I haven’t seen them play much. But it is set up nicely for a cracker as both sides need to get a result.”
After that comes a tough tie against Belgium, the Olympic silver medalists, on Tuesday, July 11. World number 19 Egpyt follow two days later before completing the group stage against Germany after a three-day break.
The first target is to ensure a top four finish from the five-team group to advance to the quarter-finals where a win would assure a World Cup ticket. As such, the aim is to win as many games as possible to gain that playoff place with nothing else on the mind.
“All of the group games are important. Every game for us, there is an opportunity there. We want to get full points from the games we should supposedly win but this is international sport. You can target whatever you like and then world ranking goes out the window so approach everything at your peril.”
** All matches will be broadcast on BT Sport; you can see the exact channels here: http://sport.bt.com/tv-guide-01363810618853
** In the lead-up to the World League semi-final, we will have interviews with Roisin Upton, Katie Mullan and Conor Harte on The Hook.
Ireland (Hockey World League Semi-final, July 9-23): D Harte (GK, SV Kampong), Jamie Carr (GK, Three Rock Rovers), J Jackson (Bath Buccaneers), J Bell (Lisnagarvey), M Bell (Banbridge), C Cargo (Hampstead & Westminster), M Nelson (Lisnagarvey), A Sothern (Pembroke), E Magee (Banbridge), N Glassey (Lisnagarvey), S O’Donoghue (Glenanne), S Murray (Lisnagarvey), J McKee (Banbridge), P Gleghorne (Lisnagarvey), J Duncan (Herakles), C Harte (Racing Club de Bruxelles), S Loughrey (Hampstead & Westminster), S Cole (Monkstown)
Hockey World League semi-final
Pool A: Australia (2), New Zealand (8), Spain (10), Japan (16), France (17)
Pool B: Germany (3), Belgium (5), Ireland (9), South Africa (15), Egypt (19)
July 9: Ireland vs South Africa, 6pm
July 11: Ireland vs Belgium, 6pm
July 13: Ireland vs Egypt, 12pm
July 17: Ireland vs Germany, 4pm
July 19: Quarter-finals
July 21: Semi-finals; 5th-8th playoffs
July 23: Final, classification matches