Opening fixtures against the Netherlands represent a tough start for Irish teams
Cliodhna Sargent was called in to the panel last week for her third Europeans. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
While a 2014 World Cup spot is on offer for the overall winner of this week’s European Championships, breaching the top four for the first time is very much the target for the Irish men and women’s hockey teams in Boom, Belgium.
Both sides saw their big chance to reach the elite competition fall away earlier this year in the World League. It means that both coaches have selected panels with more than a passing glance at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
For Darren Smith’s women, they get their group stage underway on Saturday with the toughest possible tie, facing the London 2012 gold medalists, the Netherlands.
The Dutch have brought an experimental side with just eight of their Olympic side but are, nonetheless, a formidable outfit and current world number ones.
Less than 24 hours later, Smith’s side meet Belarus before facing hosts Belgium on Tuesday for what could be a showdown for a semi-final berth with the top two set to advance. Ireland bring a reasonably established panel with ten players bringing over a half-century of experience.
With 126 caps, Cliodhna Sargent is among that number. She was called in to the panel last week for her third Europeans despite not initially being included in a summer training squad of 27 players.
Injury and unavailability, though, to Kate Dillon, Brenda Flannery and Michelle Harvey trimmed defensive options before Lizzie Colvin suffered an ACL injury, leading to Sargent’s last gasp inclusion.
Youngsters Gillian Pinder and Naomi Carroll will make their competitive tournament debuts while Grace O’Flanagan steps up to the number two goalkeeper spot.
On the men’s side, the Dutch are again in the line of vision. The world number three side are the first opponents on Sunday before Ireland – ranked 15th – meet Poland on Monday and then battle England on Wednesday.
In Monchengladbach in 2011, Ireland equaled their best-ever European finish, coming fifth. Newly installed skipper John Jackson says that his side is confident of going one better this time around.
“First place is obviously the Holy Grail but the semi-finals would be our target,” he said.
“The big thing for this group of players over the past number of years is we break moulds and the group stage represents a fair chance of us making the semi-finals for the first time.”
The midfield has undergone an overhaul following the World League round three in June with Kirk Shimmins and Stephen Cole making top tier tournament debuts.
Teams and fixtures
J Bell (Lisnagarvey, 23 caps), P Brown (Banbridge, 11), C Cargo (Reading, 77), P Caruth (Braxgata, 73), S Cole (Monkstown, 7), M Darling (Three Rock Rovers, 101), D Fitzgerald (GK, Monkstown, 17), K Good (Monkstown, 15), R Gormley (Krefeld, 172), C Harte (SCHC, 118), D Harte (GK, Kampong, 116), J Jackson (capt, Braxgata 127), S Loughrey (Team Bath Buccaneers, 40), E Magee (Krefeld, 168), B McCandless (Banbridge, 50), S O’Donoghue (UCD, 34), K Shimmins (Pembroke Wanderers, 3), M Watt (SCHC, 132)
Fixtures (all times are Irish) – Sunday: Ireland v Netherlands, 5pm; England v Poland, 9am. Monday, August 19th: Ireland v Poland, 3pm; England v Netherlands, 7pm. Wednesday, August 21st: Ireland v England, 10.30am; Netherlands v Poland 7pm.
N Atcheler (UCD, 45caps), N Carroll (Catholic Institute, 10), C Sargent (Cork Harlequins, 126), N Daly (Loreto, 55), M Frazer (Ballymoney, 38), E Gray (Hermes, 70); N Gray (UCD, 28), L Jacob (Hermes, 131), S McCay (Old Alex, 152), A O’Flanagan (UCD, 47), G O’Flanagan (Railway Union, 4), A O’Flynn (Hermes, 94), G Pinder (Hermes, 11), N Small (Loreto, 77), E Smyth (Railway Union, 90), Alex Speers (capt, Railway Union, 151), N Symmons (Loreto, 202) C Watkins (UCD, 76).
Fixtures (all times are Irish) – Saturday: Ireland v Netherlands, 5pm; Belgium v Belarus, 1pm. Sunday, August 18th: Ireland v Belarus, 3pm; Belgium v Netherlands, 7pm. Tuesday, August 21st: Ireland v Belgium, 5pm; Netherlands v Belarus, 7pm.