The Irish Under-21 men’s side travel to the Czech Republic this weekend for the EuroHockey Championships II, looking to land promotion back to the top tier of continental actino.
With Belarus and Russia excluded from the competition, they face a six-team tournament, battling for one of the two promotion places on offer with Turkey, Wales, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic hosts.
It will play out in one round-robin group phase and Joe Brennan, the head coach, says it is a very significant competition, not just for their own aspirations but for teams further down the line.
“It’s vital for Irish hockey and the men’s programme,” Brennan said ahead of the side’s departure on Friday.
“It is vital to get up to the A division because the way things work with World Cup qualification [for 2023], the only route is through the top tier. It means there is a cohort of guys, like where we are now, who will never get that opportunity to play in an Under-21 World Cup.
“Hopefully, if we go up, there are definitely guys here who can come back in two years time and can have a run at the World Cup 2025.”
Brennan was actually part of the last Irish men’s to play in a Junior World Cup in 2001 in Tasmania. Back then, the side drew with Australia and just missed out on a quarter-final spot to a late England goal.
They ended up with three wins and a draw from their eight games and was a significant developing ground for future senior internationals like Brennan, John Jermyn and David Hobbs.
And Brennan adds having that kind of target in mind is hugely important: “It gives a real reason for anyone in that under-18 squad for them to train, to commit to a programme for two to three years, knowing there is a reason to buy-in to 24 to 36 months with a real goal at the end of it. It’s a key age group and a key tournament. It is this group you will be looking at for your LA Olympics [in 2028].”
The side has a healthy look to the future with a dozen teenagers included, five of whom were still in school until June while Rex Dunlop has another year to go at King’s Hospital.
Mark Collins and Ian Perrott were both part of the Bandon Grammar School side who won the All-Ireland Schoolboys Championship earlier this year. They are among a trio of Munster players along with former Waterford man Ian Balding – now with Cork C of I – who will be a key figure in the defensive line-up.
Bar injury, Louis Rowe would have been in opposition for Banbridge Academy in that schools final but he is back in good shape for this tournament, adding to a busy summer for his family – his twin brother Charlie is currently making inroads with the senior setup.
Ollie Kidd and Johnny Lynch are part of the line-up following a hectic year, winning five trophies with their club, Lisnagarvey. Lynch made his senior international debut in June against Italy while Kidd was in the Irish indoor side who played in European competition in the winter.
All told, Ulster have seven representatives – Portadown goalkeeper Scott Dale linking up with Annadale duo James Clark and Patrick Rose as well as Bann’s Mark Cowan.
Craig Mackay is another dual international having played for the Irish Under-21 indoor side in January. He is among eight players who won the interprovincial series with Leinster, lifting the trophy along with goalkeeper Ross Clarke (Monkstown), Adam Walker (YMCA), Mark Duggan (Pembroke), Josh Filgas (UCD), Scott Ruttle (YMCA) and Evan Jennings (Three Rock Rovers).
In terms of preparation, the panel came together formally in March for the first time with a training camp in Belgium before ramping up preparations in the past five weeks from their base at Corinthian’s Whitechurch Park whom they are indebted to for the support for this programme.
Their schedule included fixtures against the English Over-35s, the Irish senior team and, last week, against Scotland’s Under-21s who are playing this week in the top tier.
Each series has seen results improve each day, closing the gap to the senior team while they won their second of two games with Scotland to finish preparations on a high.
“The guys have all bought into it and trained ridiculously hard, pushing the boundaries for themselves, probably more than they have had to do before. It has been excellent – they have put in a huge, honest effort and I couldn’t be happier with where they are as a group.
“For this particular age group, Covid has been a difficulty [over the past two years]. A lot have missed out on school and the first year of college life so we gave them a two-week break during the programme to go on holidays, enjoy themselves, and then asked them to come back for five hard weeks which they have all done.
“I felt it was the best way for the guys to come back hungry and to experience some of the life they hadn’t had at the age they are. They all came back fully committed, physically and mentally, and they have come a long way.”
As for their opposition in Plzen Litice, research is hard to come by but they have picked up video of the Polish Under-21s who face the Irish Under-18s last week – a 2-1 win for Poland – as well as Wales in action against the Scots. The Czechs will likely play a similar style to their senior team with the same coaching team in place.
But these tournaments are typically a journey into the “unknown” and managing that is high on Brennans’s agenda.
“We have worked really hard on our defensive game because the B division is really difficult to get promoted as we have seen on the last couple of occasions for the Under-21s and even at senior level.
“The players must approach each game with the same level of desire and intensity and concentration, regardless of opposition, giving each opponent the respect they are due because they have different styles, are technically different, or come from a country with a history of good hockey.
“Everything is cyclical at Under-21s and anyone can have a really strong group; you don’t know how it will work out. The idea is to get these guys into a really positive mindset to work to become really difficult to beat. If we are strong enough defensively then, we have some quality players, to take advantage of our opportunities up front.”
Irish Under-21 men’s team for the EuroHockey Junior Championships II (all in Plzen Litice, Czech Republic)
Scott Dale (Portadown)
Ross Clarke (Monkstown)
Adam Walker (YMCA)
Mark Duggan (Pembroke)
Mark Collins (Cork C of I)
Ian Perrott (Bandon)
Scott Ruttle (YMCA)
Oliver Kidd (Lisnagarvey)
Rex Dunlop (Three Rock Rovers)
Josh Filgas (UCD)
James Clark (Annadale)
Patrick Rose (Annadale)
Evan Jennings (Three Rock Rovers)
Craig Mackay (Corinthian)
Louis Rowe (Banbridge)
Ian Balding (Cork C of I)
Jonathan Lynch (Lisnagarvey)
Mark Cowan (Banbridge)
Head Coach Joe Brennan
Manager: David Howard
Assistant coach: Michael Styles
Physiotherapist: David McCrea
Video technician: Ross Howard
Men’s EuroHockey Junior Championships II (all in Plzen Litice, Czech Republic)
Sunday, July 24: Ireland v Turkey, 10.30am
Monday, July 25: Ireland v Czech Republic, 5pm
Wednesday, July 27: Ireland v Poland, 2.45pm
Friday, July 29: Ireland v Wales, 11.45am
Saturday, July 30: Ireland v Italy, 9am