Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Setanta Sports Trophy

This week’s Setanta Sports Trophy gives Irish coaches Dave Passmore and Gene Muller the perfect opportunity to reassess their squads after two unsuccessful attempts at Olympic qualification.

Both teams will face top international competition at Belfield this week, receiving visiting teams all with a ticket booked for the Games in August.

The men will face Canada, Pakistan and Great Britain while the women welcome South Africa, Germany and the British squad.

For the Irish men, they enter a tournament for the first time in eight years without inspirational captain Paddy Brown – recently voted the Irish player of the Year at the IHA Awards. – as well as the highly experienced trio of Mark Irwin, Andy Barbour and Jason Black.

As such, there is six changes to the squad that missed out on Beijing. Timmy Cockram and Geoff McCabe step up from that tournament’s reserve list but the quartet of Iain Walker, Mitch Darling, Alan Sothern and Johnny Jackson show a definite eye being cast to the future.

Even at the tender age of 20, some of have been surprised at how long it has taken for Darling to nail down a full squad berth. This season, though, has seen him convert from a creative forward struggling for goals into one of the finest poachers in the country. His five in the Club Championships semi-finals added to an extremely fruitful run throughout the league campaign.

Likewise, Jackson has had a great season, developing at top British university, Loughborough and picking up invaluable experience in the EuroHockey League.

YMCA’s Walker is set to resume his tussle with David Harte for the number one jersey. The pair, both 20, have long been regarded as two for the future and have been part fighting each other for starting berths at under-16 and under-18 national level in the past.

Commenting on his selection Passmore is very much aware of the quality of the countries involved in this tournament “This tournament marks the start of a new cycle, an era for this particular group. The quality of opposition provides the perfect scenario to assess where we are at against some in form teams preparing for the Olympics."

Ireland’s opponents, meanwhile, will be raring to go as they must complete their Olympic selections in the weeks following this tournament.

Pakistan is the most exciting team on offer, with the delightful skills of Rehan Butt and Shakeel Abbassi visiting Irish shores for the first time since the early 1990s. The last time the pair met – in World Cup qualification in China – though, Ireland produced a battling 1-1 draw and a physical approach could produce dividends. Pakistan come into the tournament off the back of a 4-2 loss to Belgium.

Great Britain, on the other hand, are in good form having drawn with Olympic contenders Spain twice in the last week while Canada are much improved from the side Ireland beat twice last year in the inaugural tournament – qualifying ahead of Argentina from the Pan-American games.

On the women’s side, Gene Muller will call on the bulk of the same side used in the Olympic qualifiers in Vancouver in April, given the proximity of the two events.

Roisin Flinn is reintroduced in place of the unavailable Ciara O’Brien while UCD clubmate Christine Quinlan could make her international debut. She is in the squad in place of the recently retired Claire Parkhill.

Speaking about the impending tournament Muller is aware that his opponents will all be at their peak as they continued to prepare for the Olympics “It gives us an opportunity to play against three Olympic bound teams at home. Germany, Great Britain and South Africa are teams that are approaching their peak, and will therefore be formidable opponents. We are looking to perform well against these teams before the end of our international season.”

Germany won the trophy last year while GB and South Africa will be grappling for something near their best form as they put the look to get somewhere close to Olympic form. With both Irish sides now in a transitional phase, looking to the 2009 European Championships, the stern tests provided could give Muller and Passmore some excellent insights into what players will be in the squad for the long haul.

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