Journalist Stephen Findlater takes an insider’s view at what the ESB Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge I will mean for the host team and its participants. Article courtesy of Irish Hockey Association / Stephen Findlater.
After months of hard yards on the training field and early morning gym sessions, the Irish women have a chance to turn the hypothetical into the tangible.
The introduction of an intense Central Participation Programme (CPP) last autumn came with the catch that Ireland could commit to fewer international fixtures, defraying the costs of centralising training in Dublin on a virtually fulltime basis.
As such, performances have been encouraging in a couple of uncapped games with Great Britain and three dominant 2-0 wins over France though tough to draw many conclusions from.
But this Champion’s Challenge will give Gene Muller and his squad a clearer idea where they are and where they need to get to if they are to challenge for one of the Olympic places on offer later this year from the European Championships in Germany.
Six games in eight days – all bar Scotland ahead of Ireland in the world rankings – in competition mode, with the added carrot of world ranking points, provides a perfect testing ground, as acknowledged by Ireland’s head coach.
“To have the opportunity to compete against teams of this calibre at our National Stadium in UCD is very exciting for us. We look forward to challenging ourselves against some of the best teams in the world”, said Gene Muller.
IHA High Performance Director Dave Passmore adds: “This is a perfect and timely opportunity for us to measure the progress made through the CPP programme and will provide an excellent platform for the team to develop towards the European Championships.”
In the pool stages, plenty of sub-plots exist. Spain is one of the continent’s perennial top four and one that Ireland must overhaul later in the summer if the Olympic dream is to be viable.
Revenge will be on the mind against Japan following a chastening 6-0 defeat last summer at the end of a tough tournament in Germany.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, was relegated on the back of Ireland’s 2-1 win in the 2009 Euros so and will be looking for its own version of payback.
Pool A looks a cracking prospect too, with the potential for Pietee Coetzee to break the world goal-scoring record. Following a spring-time series for South Africa against Belgium, China and Azerbaijan, she moved her tally to 215 goals in 217 matches. She recently added another goal to her tally, which puts her just five goals behind Russia’s Natalya Krasnikova’s world record mark.
Japan – the tournament’s top rank at ninth – faces the US for the sixth time in the past few months following a lively five-game series which saw the Asian side come from two games down to win 3-2.
Scotland enters the competition as the low ranked at 21st, but it is always a deceptive rating given the ranking is tied to the GB Olympic score. Indeed, a 2010 Celtic Cup win and silver behind Australia in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers suggests they are a side on the rise.
The week also provides a stage for a resurgent Pakistan to take on the Irish men as well as France and China in what is set to be a lively sideshow in the form of the UCD 4 Nations Hockey Cup.
Paul Revington’s Ireland is also building up to the Europeans later this year and has secured a marquee opponent as the Pakistan appears to be regaining some of its best form.
The country was only denied the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup by an extra-time goal from World Cup winners Australia last month. Pakistan was the team that delighted the Dublin crowd at the Setanta Cup in 2008.
Ireland face world number 14s China for the first time since a two-game pre-Olympic qualifiers series back in 2008 in Adelaide while France is the other side involved.
Revington’s side is unbeaten in six previous meetings with the French but it is a team that has shown form recently, tying with Argentina and showing an ability to peak at the right times.
It makes for nine brilliant days of hockey to savour at the National Hockey Stadium, the highest quality field to grace the arena since the 2005 Women’s European Championships.
The ESB Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge I will be covered in full by the FIH website, which will provide match reports, league tables, daily summaries and all official tournament documentation throughout the event.
Information about ticketing for the event as well as complete coverage of the men’s UCD 4 Nations Hockey Cup tournament can be found at www.hockey.ie .Back