Twenty-two months on, Irish head coach Mark Tumilty is excited to finally hit the turf on Sunday night with a first capped fixture since November 2019’s ill-fated Olympic qualifiers in Vancouver.
The Green Machine face hosts Poland at 7pm (Irish time) on day one of the EuroHockey Championship II in Gniezno with a new look panel with six players set to make their debut.
Among them is Kevin O’Dea who was called into the main panel earlier this week with Jonny Lynch having to step out at short notice. It means the Cork man – who completed his Leaving Cert earlier this summer – will become the first Munster player to make his debut since Julian Dale in 2016.
He is joined in the line-up by fellow uncapped players James Milliken, Kyle Marshall, Ben Nelson, Ian Stewart and Mark McNellis and coach Tumilty is excited to see how they will front up.
“With Covid, it has been a strange 16 to 18 months but very enjoyable and that’s down to the players,” he said.
“To get guys capped, to get guys into competitive international hockey is why we have trained and worked so hard. It’s been a long time coming around and obviously we have got the first chance to get out there since those Canada games. I’d like to get that out the road and move on!”
This summer, Ireland have won two uncapped series against Scotland and also have beaten a Great Britain development panel four times, most recently 3-0, 5-3 and 5-2 last weekend at Comber Road.
Now, formalities begin in earnest. The first target at this event is a top five finish from the eight-team competition which would bring a spot at October’s World Cup qualifiers. A strong performance will also boost world ranking points and offer better draw for those qualifiers and next summer’s European Championship qualifiers.
But, while Ireland are the highest ranked side in Poland at 14th in the world, that status is likely to count for little with very few of the contenders in Poland playing many games in the Covid-19 environment.
“Even from our own performances, we don’t have a lot of video so it is hard to evaluate our own level. Younger players coming into these tournaments, some will excel, some may struggle but we accept that and it is all part of what this group has to go through.
“Poland will be in the same bracket, Scotland have new faces… in general, all the teams have different faces and not many will have played many games in the last two years.”
After the Polish game, Ireland will meet Italy and then Croatia, the latter being the first ever meeting between the sides. Austria, Scotland, Switzerland and Ukraine await in the classification matches.
“We have been lucky enough to get some footage of the Polish games. 8pm, Sunday night, no doubt it will be a difficult opening game. I’ve coached against their club sides before and they always have good basics. Italy is a bit of an unknown; they had a very good World League out in Malaysia, beating China and unfortunate to go out against Canada. Croatia are an unknown.
“Most of all, I would be encouraging us to play. We need to go away from the belief simply in hard work and defence. For me, that should be a given. I would like us to play more through the midfield, a shape to allow us to express ourselves and play a more attacking style.
“That’s how I like to play and hopefully people have seen that in teams I have been involved with before. It will take time to get it fully embedded but hopefully we see it over the longer term.
“My goal is for us to consistently try and qualify for the larger tournaments and this is a small step on that road. The objective is to finish in the top five and stay in the World Cup qualification process but there are other goals in relation to our ranking for those qualifiers and also for next summer’s Euro qualifiers. To me, the focus is on the process. If we can do that, we should be grand.”
Ireland squad for EuroHockey Championship II, August 15-21; Gniezno, Poland
Jamie Carr (GK, KHC Leuven, 36)
James Milliken (GK, Lisnagarvey, 0)
Lee Cole (Monkstown, 89)
Kyle Marshall (Old Georgians, 0)
Tim Cross (Annadale, 8)
Mark McNellis (Lisnagarvey, 0)
Peter McKibbin (Lisnagarvey, 1)
Luke Madeley (KHC Leuven, 21)
Sean Murray (captain, KHC Leuven, 78)
Shane O’Donoghue (Glenanne, 190)
Michael Robson (Annadale, 113)
Kevin O’Dea (Cork C of I, 0)
Daragh Walsh (Three Rock Rovers, 51)
Jeremy Duncan (Monkstown, 56)
Ben Walker (Three Rock Rovers, 35)
Ben Nelson (Lisnagarvey, 0)
Ian Stewart (Corinthian, 0)
Johnny McKee (Banbridge, 43)
Travelling reserves: Neal Glassey (Crefelder HTC, 61), Sam Hyland (YMCA, 0)
Pool A fixture schedule (all in Gniezno, Poland – times Irish)Sunday, August 15: Ireland v Poland, 7pm Tuesday, August 17: Ireland v Italy, 4.45pm Wednesday, August 18: Ireland v Croatia, 4.45pm Friday, August 20/Saturday, August 21 – classification matches