Craig Fulton’s new-look Ireland prepared for Stormont test
Top two teams in tournament will clinch World League semi-final spots in London
David Harte: has been voted the world’s best goalkeeper for the second year in succession. Photograph: Ali Bharmal/Getty Images
Now that Cork’s David Harte has established himself as the best goalkeeper in the world for the second year in succession, his name on Ireland’s team sheet for this week of international action beginning on Saturday ought to draw in the crowds.
Winning the world award again with Irish coach Craig Fulton pulling last year’s coach of the year and representation at the Rio Olympic Games suggests Ireland is in a healthy place with regard to current international standards.
This week and next in Stormont, Belfast will see how that reputation stands up as the new-look team, without some of the Rio veterans, face into the first of two possible World Cup qualifying tournaments culminating in the finals next year in the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, India.
The top two teams in Belfast will move along to the World League semi-finals. Taking place in London in June (the other takes place in South Africa), the semi-finals offer teams the chance to qualify for the Hockey World League Finals later in the year as well as the ultimate prize of 2018 Hockey World Cup qualification.
Because the World Cup finals have been increased to 16 teams, Ireland should stand a good chance of qualification as they current sit 10th in the world.
But it is critical to place in the top two in Stormont over the next nine days to make it to London in the summer and be competitive there. The beginning of that journey starts with Ukraine on Saturday in the third match of the day.
But it is probably Sunday’s match against the Austrians that could place Ireland into a strong position. The obvious pressure on Fulton and his side is that they are favourites to win the event as France, ranked at 17th in the world and in the other pool are the closest rated team to Ireland. Austria are ranked at 21 and Italy 35, while Ireland are also bronze medallists from the 2015 European Championships.
If you didn’t already know it, the Irish women swept the boards at their equivalent tournament in Malaysia recently. Six games, six wins and 39 goals tell all.
But with just nine players from Rio in the squad and eight coming in to a world ranking event for the first time, Ireland’s challenge over the next six games is to see how they now manage the transition.