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How Ireland men can progress to final eliminator in Olympic bid

 

Matt finish: Matthew Nelson is one of four Ulstermen up front
Matt finish: Matthew Nelson is one of four Ulstermen up front

By Graham Hamilton

Ireland men are finishing off their preparations in Le Touquet ahead of the FIH Series tournament which starts tomorrow and offers two places in the Tokyo Olympics final eliminator.

The players have been spotted on the beach at the coastal resort in northern France after training sessions, but head coach Alexander Cox is pleased his men aren't burying their heads in the sand and thinking that they will qualify automatically just because they are the highest ranked team among the eight competing nations.

The Green Machine have been on the crest of a wave in recent years, having won European bronze and qualified for the Rio Olympics and World Cup finals, and Cox doesn't want that tide to turn over the next 10 days.

The team took in a practice game against Chile, who are in the other pool, which gave them a chance to get used to the pitch ahead of tomorrow's opener against Scotland (10.15am).

Then there are further pool games against Egypt on Sunday (12.30pm) and Singapore on Tuesday (2.45pm), and if the Irish can finish top of their pool then it's straight through to the semi-finals, avoiding the additional crossover game involving the second and third-placed teams.

Cox is confident his team can qualify for the decider and thus book their place in the final Olympic eliminator scheduled for the autumn, but knows they will have to be at their sharpest.

Scotland may not have their full squad with them, as several are with the Great Britain team taking part in the ProLeague series, but they would savour a shock win over their neighbours.

And Egypt have shown recent progress by reaching the Africa Cup of Nations final, only losing narrowly to South Africa.

Singapore may be the lowest ranked team in the tournament, but they did qualify through one of the Open Series tournaments by winning all six of their games.

If the Irish go through to the semi-finals, it is most likely to be Korea or France that stand in their way of reaching the decider.

Cox is quick to remind his players that Korea won the recent Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, while France took Argentina's scalp as they managed eighth place in the World Cup.

Much attention will be focused on the all-Ulster strike force of Eugene Magee (Banbridge) and Matthew Nelson (Lisnagarvey), along with former Garvey duo Sean Murray and Michael Robson who are being used as attackers as opposed to their normal midfield roles.

Altogether Ulster supply half of the squad, with Jonathan Bell, Matthew Bell, Paul Gleghorne and John Jackson in defence and Neal Glassey in midfield.

The Irish women have laid a marker by winning World Cup silver and storming through to their FIH Series semi-finals in Banbridge, and the men are determined to try and make it both teams heading to Tokyo in 2020.

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