Ireland face tough European opener

HAVING watched their male counterparts blaze a trail of glory for the majority of the summer, Ireland’s senior women have a chance to keep the good vibes coming as they begin their EuroHockey Nations Championship campaign in Amsterdam tomorrow.

While the men have been cleaning up in second-tier competitions – winning three and losing the final of a fourth – Gene Muller says his women’s side will have different priorities in mind as they compete at the top level, namely retaining their A division status.

Automatic World Cup qualification is the carrot for the semi-finalists, but to achieve this, Ireland would need to upset either Germany or Spain – third and seventh in the world respectively – in the pool stages.

Their focus is likely to instead be to defeat Scotland, the lowest-ranked side in their pool, and do enough in the classification matches to avoid the demotion fate that befell the men in 2007.

Indeed, Muller has effectively set his stall out already by opting to take an extra defender – Cork Harlequins’ Cliodhna Sargent, who could win her 50th cap at the tournament – with Loreto playmaker Niamh Small losing out.

Converting chances and finding a sharper cutting edge continues to provide the biggest headache for Muller. However, there was a positive constant throughout the series against England, Spain and Germany earlier this year, as the Irish improved in the latter games once they had got the measure of their opponents, running them far closer.

They will not have that luxury this time around; a baptism of fire awaits tomorrow at the Wagener Stadium against defending champions Germany (10.30am), before a match-up with the Scots on Sunday with Spain lying in wait on Tuesday.

Despite the fact this is the most experienced Irish squad in memory in terms of cap averages, Muller believes his side will reach maturity in 2011.

On the other side of the draw, world number ones the Netherlands should emerge comfortably from Pool A, with eighth-ranked England next in line.

Domestically, the Munster Branch of the Irish Hockey Association (MBIHA) have agreed to a request from UCC’s men to promote their second team to Division Two.

The move comes on the back of the eyebrow-raising appointment of Neil Welch as first-team coach at The Mardyke. With College now expected to recruit heavily over the coming weeks, the branch agreed that the club would be better served by narrowing the two-division jump from the first to second XIs.

However, there is less good news on the ladies side of things, as Moyne/Thurles and Midleton have both informed the branch of their intention to fold. A branch spokesperson said they would be endeavouring to help the clubs out in whatever manner possible to see if they can continue to survive.

EuroHockey Nations Championship, Wagener Stadium, Amsterdam: Ireland squad (club/caps): L Barr (Ballymoney/13), E Clarke (Ulster Elks/76), B Cleland (Ballymoney/132), L Colvin (Loreto/17), E Cregan (Cork Harlequins/154, capt), R Flinn (UCD/59), M Frazer (Ballymoney/16), M Goode (Bray/57), E Gray (Hermes/11), M Harvey (Pegasus/18), L Jacob (UCD/54), S McCay (Ulster Elks/71), C McKean (Loreto/125), C Sargent (Cork Harlequins/46), A Speers (Pegasus/60), E Smyth (Railway Union/12), E Stewart (Armagh/77), N Symmons (Loreto/122).

Schedule (all Irish times): Tomorrow: Ireland v Germany, 10.30am; Sunday: Ireland v Scotland, 8.30am; Tues: Ireland vs Spain, 12.30pm; Thursday and Saturday: Classification matches/finals.

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