Polish magic shows off new-look Green Machine

For Conor Harte, Ireland’s glorious fifth goal against Poland in March provided the moment when there was a feeling that things were coming together nicely for the green machine.

A series of one-touch passes on halfway set Sean Murray clean through; he slid his stick under the ball on the move to chip the hapless Rafal Banaszak and while it was on its way over the line, Jonny McKee made extra sure.

Conor Harte will get married just a couple of days after the tournament in South Africa. Pic: Adrian Boehm

While not overly important in the grand scheme of a 5-1 victory, the moment in the World League Round 2 quarter-final was a sign an overhauled team was gelling nicely.

Since the Olympics, several players had made themselves unavailable. Peter Caruth, Michael Robson and John Jermyn were injured and Chris Cargo added to that list with a broken finger during the tournament in Stormont.

It provided a glimpse of what the next generation could produce. For Harte, who reached his 200th cap in June, it was a reassuring moment after some stressful times, wondering if the side could reach the same levels that earned their place at Rio.

“That was one of my most stressful tournaments, personally, sleeping-wise because of the unknown element to it,” he said.

“We scored that unbelievable counter goal in our first meaningful knock-out game. We saw what the guys were made of and I thought ‘we are onto something here’ and no one was going to stop us.”

Ireland swept to the final and their place in Johannesburg for the World League Semi-Final where they will look to claim a first World Cup spot since 1990.

They did it with a number of players that Harte knew precious little about other than what he had read on The Hook in dispatches having played just one season in Ireland in the last seven years.

“The lads were probably ball-boying around the side of the pitch back then, they were so young. They have brought a real freshness, an eagerness and a raw bit of talent. I remember over the years seeing their names on the Hook.”

Indeed, it is probably the first seismic shift in the line-up of its ilk since 2009 with eight players making their major tournament debuts in March. For this week, just eight of the Olympic panel are around.

“That’s a big turnover. With [a settled squad], there can be a complacency and a comfort zone. These guys are all so well conditioned compared to us when we were their age. There’s a real willingness to learn and things seem to be slotting into place quicker and that comes from their attitude.”

Such changes are part of the passage of time and big life decisions are coming thick and fast for the experienced end of the team.

Indeed, Harte hopes the tournament can act as the perfect pre-wedding present. Following the games in South Africa, Harte will return to Ireland on July 25 just four days before his nuptials.

Conor, along with brother David, is a full-time player, lining out for the past few seasons with Racing Club de Bruxelles but is aware there will be a time to make a choice.

“Professionally, we are aware it is a privileged career. Longevity of the career is massive and we want to prolong it as long as we can to our best ability.

“If we are firing at 50%, we might as well hang up our sticks. I wouldn’t say that it is weighing on my mind but it definitely does enter the mind a lot more. [David and I] are both 29 now and you do think ahead to other possibilities, the future.

“I thought naively that those days would never come that guys would step aside because of work like Ronan [Gormley], Mitch [Darling] and Mikey Watt and all those countless other guys.

“The reassuring thing is the crop of young guys coming up, especially the guys getting contracts in Europe. When the likes of Mitch, ourselves and so on going away in our early 20s, it made a big difference.”

Back to the immediate task at hand, Ireland face hosts South Africa on Sunday evening in their first of four group games. Olympic silver medalists Belgium are next on Tuesday before an important tie against Egypt. That phase of the competition closes with a tie against Germany.

Sean Murray played a key role in Ireland’s fifth goal against Poland in March. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“You’ll always have eyes on the first game. You do want to grow into the tournament and perform well in the first game. We would like to take them down and set the tone but we will be as blind as they are with regard to video of how they are playing.”

Finish in the top four in the group and Ireland will advance to the quarter-finals and one big step closer to the 2018 World Cup. The top five qualify automatically for the main event so a quarter-final win earns the ticket straight away.

Lose and they go into the fifth to eighth place classification matches. While fifth definitely goes to the World Cup, it is more than likely sixth and seventh will do, too, once the continental championships are ironed out later this year.

Ireland are facing up the challenge in good form with just one loss in 16 outings in 2017, beating world number three side Germany in Hamburg in their final official warm-up tie a fortnight ago.

On Tuesday, they saw off New Zealand 2-1 in an uncapped challenge match. Like coach Craig Fulton, Harte does not want to read too much into the numbers but is upbeat about the chances.

“I didn’t know the stats but I would say none of us were thinking about that but the old cliché of winning being a habit is true and it’s great!”

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