The summer begins for the women’s Irish hockey team on Saturday. Looking towards August’s European Championships, which also double as an Olympic qualifier for the top three finishing nations, the Irish team will face Japan, USA, South Africa, India, Scotland, Azerbaijan and Spain in the International Hockey Federation’s Champion’s Challenge One competition.
The event involves the ninth- to 16th-ranked teams and with Ireland currently 15th in the world, the idea would be for the hosts to win the event or at least take a few higher-placed scalps before concentrating on the trip to Mönchengladbach, Germany, in eight weeks’ time. Ireland finished fifth in the last European Championships two years ago in Amsterdam.
It’s the first international tournament the Irish team has played since the players were centralised in Dublin. That was a significant move by the sport to ramp up the national level and bring the athletes on to as equal a footing as possible with the top tier of nations, many of whom are professional or semi-professional.
Captain Alex Speers, of Railway Union, who started her senior career with Pegasus before playing semi-professional in Belgium with Dragons for several years, sees the centralisation of the players as a vital step towards getting Ireland to within reach of a major world championship.
“This is the beginning of a very important summer,” says the Irish captain. “It’s great to have such high-calibre games to see where we are. Then there is time for us to work on what we need to work on. We’ve been in this (centralisation) now for eight months. We started last October and we train 20 hours a week.
“There’s more time to look at details, which is where we have really benefited. Technical things, technically on the ball, the fact that people know where each other are on the ball. Now’s the time to see how far we’ve come.”
A number of top Irish players have also left their mark after playing in Belgium. Stephen Butler, Eugene Magee, Geoff McCabe, Mike Walker and Shirley McCay, who is also on the current squad, have all played there. But the Belfield tournament will also test the Irish, who will face a number of different styles and systems.
“It’s a world ranking tournament,” says Speers. “We’re the second-lowest ranked going into the tournament. There’s definitely room for improvement there. Every game will be tight.
“Spain is the highest-ranked team and they are in our group. Five out of the eight teams played in the World Cup so it’s a high calibre tournament. Yeah, it will be interesting to pitch ourselves against them and see where we are.”
Ireland open against India at 5pm on Saturday, then play Azerbaijan on Sunday in their second match. Monday is a rest day, with Ireland’s final pool match against Spain scheduled for Tuesday before the overall placings are made. The format then allows for a quarter-final, semi-final and final.
A men’s international four nations event also begins on Monday, which means two international hockey events will dominate all of next week. The men’s Four Nations Cup comprises Ireland, France Pakistan and China, with Ireland opening against the Chinese on Monday evening at 8pm.
Pakistan, ranked 8th in the world, are the favourites for the title, with China ranked 14, France ranked 17 and Ireland ranked 18 tightly enough bunched to make those three sides equal enough partners on the day.
Article from Irish Times 16th June 2011 by Johnny Watterson