The South African, who coached the Green Machine to a first Olympic berth in 108 years last summer and has achieved an all-time high world ranking of 10th, believes Irish hockey can now offer a pathway to the top of the game.
Fulton believes the new presence of Ireland’s U21s at the top European level, plus the increased qualification chances for an expanded 16-team 2018 World Cup, lessens the risk of Ulster prospects switching allegiance amid renewed financial incentives from Great Britain as their men’s team continues to underachieve.
“If we hadn’t qualified for Rio and there was no reality around it, you would lose a lot more players,” Fulton told The Hook.
“The fact it has been done, players can see a way through [to the senior team] with an U21 A division tournament for August; there’s already been three guys of 18 years old who have been capped.
“A good crop of 19- and 20-year-olds are in the training panel. If you can’t see a path for opportunity there, I don’t think you will see one.”
Iain Lewers, Mark Gleghorne, David Ames, and Ian Sloan were all capped by Ireland before switching, ruling themselves out of international hockey for three years. However, all made GB’s Olympic squad in Rio.
Like Ireland, GB exited at the group stage and after an underwhelming U21 World Cup, four retirements, and the axing of 32-year-old talisman Lewers on the basis of age, they are looking to rebuild a squad that only had one player under 25 at Rio.
Up to 40 full- and part-time contracts are available for both men and women — 80 in total — for the next Olympic cycle with UK Sport committing £18m, up from £16.1m, (€20.5m, up from €18.4m) to the elite teams.
By contrast, Fulton recently lamented that the Green Machine’s Sport Ireland funding — a fraction of that available across the Irish Sea — is allocated annually, hindering his long-term planning.
Amid suggestions that some top Ulster prospects have been approached with a view to playing for Great Britain, Fulton is content their ambitions can be realised here.
“I can understand from a financial point of view, sure.” admits Fulton. “But from a playing point of view, the pathway through to Tokyo 2020 is very alive in Ireland.
“To get onto one of those contracted (GB) positions, they are already named — 40 for men, 40 for women. They have already looked at their U21 grouping. It would be very interesting if someone wanted to change or turn now. It still means another three years (out of international hockey) for those who have been capped.”