Following the announcement of the 18-player squad in December, the Ireland Men’s Hockey team had their last training session yesterday evening at Lisnagarvey Hockey Club in Hillsborough, Co. Down before they leave for Spain this Sunday ahead of their Olympic Qualification tournament later this month.
The tournament which will take place between January 13th and 21st will be in Valencia, Spain and is the final opportunity for nations to reach the Summer Olympic Hockey Tournament in Paris. Eight nations from all over the world have reached this qualification tournament in Valencia. They will be joined in Valencia by the Ireland Women’s Hockey team who are also seeking qualification to this summer’s Paris Olympics.
Ireland (World Ranked #13) are drawn in Pool A alongside Ukraine (#29) whom they open their campaign against on Sunday January 14 at 7:45p.m. local time. Next up is Belgium (#2) whom they play on Monday January 15 with a 6:15 p.m. start, and they finish the Pool A phase against Japan (#15) on Wednesday January 17 with a 6:15p.m. start.
In Pool B, hosts Spain (#8), are in with Korea(#10), Austria (#19), and Egypt (#20). There are only 3 qualification places available from this tournament, so it is essential Ireland finish second at least in the pool and preferably win their semi-final to ensure a spot in Paris next summer. A place could still be secured by the losing semi-finalists were they to win the 3rd place play-off.
QUOTES FROM PLAYERS:
SEAN MURRAY (Captain)
“With the other three teams in Pool A, Ukraine, Belgium and Japan, Belgium are probably the tournament favourites. Japan we don’t know too much about. We’d be confident we can get the group off to a good start with a win against Ukraine. We will treat the Japan game as a must-win game. We know that they are experienced. If we do manage to qualify for the Olympic games, we then have 10 days at home before we head to India for the first of our FIH Pro League series of games. Those games will be ideal preparation for the challenge of playing at the summer Olympics if we manage to get one of the three spots on offer in Valencia. But the first thing is to get through this qualification tournament and get one of the three places available.”
JOHNNY MCKEE (Player)
“If we had been able to write the schedule of matches for ourselves in Pool A, that is the pattern we would have chosen. Ukraine improve as the tournament wears on so it’s best to play them first. We’ll be asking the players who play in Belgium (or who have previously played there), with and against those Belgian internationals for any information on the opponents. We are primarily concentrating on getting out of the group. You then have to win one of your remaining two games to get to Paris. Either win the semi-final or the third place play off if you lose the semi-final. The priority is the first game against Ukraine. We played them in the European B Championships last summer in Dublin. We won’t underestimate them in any way. Japan have had a bit of funding since they hosted the last Olympics and they have been progressing so none of these games will be easy.”
MARK TUMILTY (Head Coach)
On the 1st game v Ukraine:
“I’m pleased with the way that the fixtures worked out for ourselves. We played Ukraine twice in the B Europeans last summer in Dublin and they were much more difficult opponents in the final than they had been during the Pool game so it’s best to get them early as they grow into tournaments. Hopefully we can get a bit of confidence from that going into our next game against Belgium.”
On the 2nd game v Belgium:
“Belgium offer a significant challenge and from our point of view it’s better to have played a game before we face that challenge. They are World Ranked #2 for a reason as they are former Olympic and World Champions. It’s a game I look forward to. We’ll be able to measure our progress over the past 12 months by how we perform against Belgium. Hopefully it sets us up for the Japan game. Given that the game is the last one on the day we go in knowing what we need to do as the other games scheduled on the same day will have been completed.”
On the 3rd game v Japan:
“I think Japan will be a very tough game. They reached the final of the Asian Games recently losing 1-5 to India. Asian teams offer a different type of hockey to what we are used to in Europe. We played them in a friendly tournament in South Africa. Our game against them could come down to how we execute our set plays.”
On trying to make the semi-finals and potential Olympic Qualification:
“I think if you look at the tournament, how it’s setup, Belgium and Spain are most people’s favourites to qualify. Any of the other six nations will feel if they can produce a good week’s hockey, they could secure that 3rd qualification spot for the Olympic Games. We played Spain in a three game series last month. We were competitive in the first two games, and they were by far the better team in the third.
“We have played Austria in the not too distant past and they will present a challenge should they come out of the other pool. Egypt had a good African Nations Cup only losing out to South Africa at the final stage. Korea would be an interesting challenge. It’s definitely a tournament that offers a stiff competition. No route to an Olympics was ever going to be easy, but we are delighted to be travelling to Spain as we were there last month, it is familiar enough for our group of players and it will be within reach for our supporters too.”
On the importance of the FIH Pro League with regard to preparation for future World Cup and Olympic Qualification cycles:
“Should we manage to make the Olympic Games, playing the in the FIH Pro League against the top 8 World Ranked Nations can only be hugely beneficial for our group in terms of preparation for the games themselves and future challenges such as World Cup Qualification for 2026 and the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. Every game we play will be against teams with higher World Rankings than ourselves and realistically we cannot look at that as anything other than a massive challenge.”