The Irish men picked up two wins and a draw from their three-game series against Italy at Lisnagarvey as they continue their summer schedule, building experience and knowledge ahead of the European Championships qualifiers in August.
Coach Mark Tumilty was “pleased with the progress” over the weekend with four new players making their international debuts amid a 2-1 win on Friday, 3-0 on Saturday and a 1-1 tie on Sunday morning.
“Friday was the one which we struggled which we need to be wary of when it comes to opening games of tournaments,” Tumilty said of the series.
“Saturday I was pleased with how we started but we need to maintain that. We grew into this one and getting that consistency is what we need to get at the minute. Can we play for the four quarters?”
It is part of a busy phase for the Irish men with an upcoming four nations tournament in Scotland with Wales and USA also featuring while Austria and Chile come to Dublin in the coming months. The main event is in Calais in late August with a ticket to next year’s European Championships the target.
Having so many games is key for Tumilty and he was happy with how 17-year-old Charlie Rowe, Rory Patterson, Ben Johnson and Johnny Lynch performed.
“Charlie should be very pleased with his two performances but it doesn’t surprise me. He has that mentality; we didn’t give him a lot of instructions, just let him play and that is often how it should be with younger players.
“I was happy in general with the new caps and how they settled, getting good competition in the squad which is important.”
Getting that extra game time is also crucial with a young panel, many of whom still making their way in the international game after a low-key two years during the Covid-19 break.
“That was a key objective – to get 25 to 30 games in. The more players we can get from 50 to 100 caps, the better. The top nations have so many between 150 and 200 and so we have to get them that exposure. We do have a good balance of meeting higher-ranked nations and those below us who we need to win against.
“This year, it took a while to get our program in place but I am pleased with what we were able to get in place to get us through to Paris [2024 Olympic qualifiers].
“Our staff is in place and we do have an opportunity to grow physically to compete all the way through next year. I am happy where our support is – although obviously, I would like more money to compete with the big nations!”
*** Game reports ***
Friday Ireland 2 (C Empey, J McKee) Italy 1 (T Keenan)
Two goals in the 49th minute saw Ireland’s men come back to win 2-1 and continue their long unbeaten run against Italy.
It dates back to 2013 and spans 11 games now as Conor Empey and Jonny McKee scored within seconds of each other to overturn a first half Thomas Keenan effort.
Keenan – whose grandfather hails from Cork before moving to Argentina – swooped to net a penalty corner rebound which had given the 27th ranked Italians a surprise win in the first of three capped matches at Comber Road this weekend.
But the Green Machine camped in the visitors’ half for much of the second half and eventually broke through via some McKee 3D magic, unlocking the door for Sean Murray to lift the ball over Francesco Mitrotta with Empey getting the final touch.
McKee then got one of his own mere seconds after the restart to transform the result. The tie saw Rory Patterson and Johnny Lynch earn their first formal Irish caps
Saturday: Ireland 3 (J McKee 2, C Empey) Italy 0
Jonny McKee’s double helped make it two wins from two for Ireland in their three-game series against Italy at a rain-soaked Comber Road.
The Banbridge man augmented Conor Empey’s second minute opening strike with a super revese-stick strike before completing the win in the closing stages.
The tie also served as a first cap for Ben Johnson and Charlie Rowe – another Banbridge man – 17 days shy of his 18th birthday. Indeed, Rowe had captained the Irish Under-18s in a win over England and he felt he took the step up in his stride.
“It is really nice to get the first cap at my age, clean sheet and a win,” Rowe said afterwards. “It’s exciting and hopefully more to come. I wasn’t too nervous about it, just got on and played away. Once I got into it, I didn’t really worry about it too much!”
In this one, they got off to a flyer with Ben Walker slipping the ball into the path of Empey who rounded on the ball, cracking home his second goal in two games on the turn.
Goal two followed soon after with Luke Madeley’s long overhead pass finding McKee beyond the last defender. He controlled it brilliantly before flipping the ball onto his backhand and picking out the bottom corner.
Madeley could have made it three but cleared the crossbar from a penalty stroke as Ireland dominated the first 10 minutes before the Italians settled. The visitors held sway for parts of the second and third quarter on a slow pitch but found clear chances at a premium.
But Ireland closed out the contest on the up, working an excellent overload move via McKee and on to Jeremy Duncan. His first shot was parried by Roberto Broere but McKee followed up to kill off the chance.
Sunday: Ireland 1 (B Johnson) Italy 1 (M Mondo)
Ben Johnson netted his first international goal but the overall feeling was one of frustration as Ireland were unable to make the most of a plethora of chances in their closing test match against Italy at Comber Road.
The Waterford native flicked in from the right of the D in the 40th minute to cancel out Manuel Mondo’s first half drag-flick.
Mark Tumilty’s side subsequently laid siege to the visitors goal but, despite, new numerous near misses could not find the crucial touch.
Ireland did start heavily on the front foot with Jeremy Duncan, Conor Empey and Ben Johnson all forcing good saves from Francesco Mitrotta.
Italy, though, hit the front from their second attack in earnest in the 26th minute when Mondo whipped home a penalty corner.
It made it 1-0 at half-time. The second half was one-way traffic with Italy offering minimal threat, often sitting with 11 men behind the ball, as Ireland piled on the pressure.
The breakthrough came when Callum Robson’s shot was blocked by Mitrotta into the path of Johnson who scored his first international goal – in his second cap – with a composed flick.
The pattern continued through the final quarter as Italy’s goal lived a charmed life but no further goals accrued, leaving Ireland to settle for a draw.