It would be difficult to argue with the supposition that hockey in Ireland has never had it so good. After the ladies’ phenomenal achievement in reaching the World Cup final during the summer, the men’s Hockey World Cup tips off in Bhubaneswar, India at the end of November, and for the first time since 1990, Ireland will be joining the party. While expecting the men to match the exploits of their female counterparts would be fanciful, there is a quiet confidence among the squad that we can give a good account of ourselves- this despite the fact that the team have been handed a relatively difficult group. Indeed, Ireland will open their campaign against world champions Australia, before facing China, and then England. Only the pool winners are guaranteed a berth in the quarter-finals, with the second and third place finishers in each pool needing to win a cross-over match in order to reach the last eight.
To play your first World Cup match in 28 years against the world champions and world’s best-ranked team is a daunting task, and to expect anything from this game would be almost preposterous. While The Kookaburras will be without talisman and four-time Olympian Mark Knowles, their squad is blessed with incredible talent in most areas, most notably, the experienced Jake Whetton and the goal-scoring machine that is Blake Govers. The next two games though will be targeted and represent a genuine opportunity to get points on the board. Ireland most recently played England in a warm-up tournament this month, beating them twice (once in a shootout). Before that, they met in the Shah Cup in March, with Ireland losing 4-1 – although the stifling Malaysian humidity and the debilitating bilious attacks of many of the Irish team were mitigating factors. The China game is one Ireland can reasonably expect to win. Ranked seven places ahead of the Chinese in the world rankings, the Irish team is vastly more experienced, with a significant majority of the steadily improving Chinese team aged 25 or under.
A point of contention with this World Cup is the new structure of matches which has been introduced, where some of the weaker teams will potentially only play 3 matches before departing. This is in contrast to the usual seven matches, with the extra matches either being tournament matches or for the purposes of classification. The flurry of games that this format engenders results in an action-packed schedule- something that has proved popular with players and fans alike over the years. However, only two matches will be played on each day of the group stages meaning much more downtime for the players, and the resulting three-day breaks are likely to feel uncanny at the very least.
UCD – so well-represented by the ladies in London- will also have alumni competing in India, among them Luke Madeley and Kirk Shimmins. Madeley-who plies his trade with the domestically dominant Three Rock Rovers- will be playing his first world ranking tournament, and can attribute his inclusion, in no small part, to his exceptional recent form. Indeed, Madeley scored a crucial late goal to help Rovers advance to the next stage of the prestigious Euro Hockey League (EHL), and Irish coach Alexander Cox conceded that he ‘would be lying’ if that particular game did not impact his decision. Shimmins, a Business & Law graduate, meanwhile plays for Belgian champions, KHC Dragons, having recently transferred- like so many this season- from the domestic EY Hockey League. Unlike Madeley, Shimmins has been a mainstay of the Irish team for many years now and boasts an impressive century of caps to his name for someone who is still only 24. Incidentally, the pair will face-off in the knockout stages of the EHL, where anything but a win for Shimmins’ club would represent a major surprise.
Of his 100 caps, Shimmins hesitates in identifying a particular highlight for this writer, given the sheer number of apogees. ‘Beating Pakistan in Antwerp in 2015 to put us in a position to qualify for Rio was a game I will never forget; I think they had 96% possession in one quarter. Beating Malaysia in the same tournament was also a memorable game as that game ultimately qualified us for Rio. However, I would say my two biggest highlights would be competing in Rio and winning a European Bronze medal in 2015 against England in London.’
For Shimmins the higher quality of the Belgian league has been discernible. ‘The games are played at a higher tempo and the quality of player means minor mistakes are punished,’ he says. However, he also concedes that the establishment of our own National League- now in its eleventh season- has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of raising standards in Ireland. Indeed, relating the founding of our domestic league and the recent upturn in fortunes of our international teams would not be absurd; Ireland’s most recent centurion agrees, acknowledging that ‘games are more competitive and as a result, the standard has risen.’
Regrettably, the spectre of hygiene concerns in the host city looms large over this World Cup. However, such issues have been faced by our team before, most recently in Malaysia, and Shimmins believes focusing on hockey matters is the best course of action to take. ‘Hygiene is definitely something we have discussed. It is difficult because we will try and control as much as we can but some things are just out of our hands. The only thing we can do is be as careful as we can and if there are issues we will deal with them as they come. The staff have prepared us and will no doubt have solutions for whatever may arise.’
In terms of tournament expectations, Shimmins shares the quiet optimism of many in Irish hockey circles: ‘We have shown recently that we can compete with anyone in the world and that we continue to build and improve. We will take it game by game but I think the aim is to reach a quarter-final and from there, anything can happen.’
Unlike some other sports, qualifying for a World Cup in hockey is a ferociously difficult task, and comparing our depth of talent with that of other countries, only serves to underline the commendable achievement it is to simply qualify for the tournament. Our two previous World Cup outings, in 1978 and 1990, have seen us finish in 12th position on both occasions, but there is plenty of reason to believe an improvement on those showings is attainable. In recent years, we have made laudable progress in both the world rankings and in major tournament performances. In 2016, we appeared for the first time in the Olympic games after an arduous qualifying process and some agonisingly close misses in previous years. The year before we won that hard-earned bronze at the European Championships. The team currently sits at tenth in the world rankings, and if recent form is anything to go by, Shimmins et al are more than capable of springing a surprise in The Temple City. Here’s hoping.
By Neil Stokes – Sports Writer