Ireland’s men, with nine Ulster men in the squad, continued their preparations for next month’s Olympic qualifier in Le Touquet with two impressive wins over USA in Dublin at the weekend.
Penalty corner goals from Shane O’Donoghue and Luke Madeley saw them complete a 2-0 win over USA at Serpentine Avenue, adding to Friday’s 5-0 success over the same opposition.
The wins give Ireland a boost as they begin their preparations in earnest for the FIH Series Finals in France in June, a vital step on the road to potentially qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
The Green Machine, without Ulster’s Eugene Magee who was rested as a precaution due to a hamstring issue, started well on Sunday and were in front inside the first three minutes following a series of penalty corners, O’Donoghue hitting the net for 1-0.
They continued to carry the greater threat through the first quarter with Matthew Nelson causing problems and Matthew Bell drew a big stop from goalkeeper Jonathan Klages. The US, for their part, went close but Mark Ingram got out well to make good stops from Deegan, Huisman and Mike Barminski to keep Ireland’s lead in tact.
A couple more Irish corners went incomplete early in the second quarter while Michael Robson’s rising shot was batted away by Klages.
Madeley made it 2-0 in the 23rd minute with a high drag-flick to give a bit more comfort on the scoreboard and they carried this advantage to the big break after Patrick Harris’s dangerous shot was cleared by Ingram.
The second half was scrappier with both sides trying out new pressing techniques. Ireland were making nice circle entries and getting to the baseline but they could not back that up with the killer touch in front of goal.
USA, meanwhile, had the clearer openings when Huisman pounced on a mistake but Jamie Carr – on as a half-time sub – raced off his line to charge down the shot before Kei Kaeppler whipped the rebound over the bar.
Kai de Jager was standing in as lead coach for the weekend due to head coach Alexander Cox’s involvement with SV Kampong in the Dutch national final. Speaking afterwards, de Jager said he was content with what his side worked on over the course of the series against the US.
“We are really happy about some things, young guys stepping up like Benny Walker; we got a lot of circle entries in the positions we wanted them to be,” he said.
“Pressing wise, we still need to make some steps because if you play a high zonal format, it can be difficult to get it right the first time you use it.”
“I’m happy with the goalkeeping work and our deep defence which is something we pride ourselves on. USA is a good opponent who are going to the FIH Series as well and we scored seven with two clean sheets There’s not much more you can ask for, maybe score a few more goals.”
Next on the Irish men’s agenda is a two-game series against France in Lisnagarvey on June 4 and 6 before travelling to Le Touquet where their FIH Series Finals begin on June 15. Before that, the squad will host an open training session at the Hillsborough venue this Friday at 4.30pm when the players will be available to meet the fans and media.
Meanwhile, Ireland women’s captain Katie Mullan believes new head coach Sean Dancer will bring an extra dimension to the squad’s playing style as the national team aim to build on their World Cup heroics by reaching the Tokyo Olympics.
Dancer will shortly take over the role as Graham Shaw’s successor after the pair swapped places when the Dubliner moved to New Zealand.
In the meantime, former Ards coach Gareth Grundie is in the hot seat, having been promoted from assistant to interim head coach until after the first stage of the Olympic qualifying process which starts in Banbridge next weekend.
Dancer has already pledged to stamp his own style on the national team when he takes charge and will focus on improving Ireland’s attacking play. That will complement the largely defensive approach that Shaw adopted so successfully at last year’s World Cup when Ireland surpassed even their own expectations by taking home the silver medal.
Mullan said: “Sean brings a wealth of experience at international level and while we continue to build on what we have, I also think he will bring something new to keep us progressing. We will, of course, still concentrate on our strong base in the defence which has proved successful in the past.”
“Then, moving forward, the aim will be to try and improve our attacking play and get more outcomes in the circle.”
Ireland continue their build up to the Banbridge tournament tomorrow in Dublin when they face the Indian Under-21 team. The Irish training panel has been trimmed from 32 to 24 with six more players to drop out before the squad for Banbridge is announced at the end of the week.
In addition to the six World Cup heroines, Chloe Brown (East Grinstead) and Bethany Barr (UCD) are among the Ulster players who have been retained but they remain an outside bet to make the cut although two reserves will also be named.