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Rio could leave golden legacy for Hockey in province

This week: Hockey's Olympic opportunity

By Graham Hamilton

When Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood returned with gold medals from the Seoul Olympics back in 1988, hockey in Ulster and Ireland received a massive shot in the arm.

Hockey clubs and schools here reported a big upsurge in the number of kids who wanted to take up the sport to follow in the footsteps of their heroes, and the benefits are still being reaped as some of the current international players came through the ranks as a result of that epic time 27 years ago.

So you can imagine just how excited Ulster and Irish hockey boffins are getting with the Rio Olympics just under a year away.

And their thinking is understandable - if two players achieving gold at the Olympics can make such an impact on the sport, what will it be like if a DOZEN or more Ulster players get the chance to show off their skills in Brazil?

More than a dozen? Yes, it seems incredible. But if results pan out as expected at this week's European Championships and at October's Oceania Championships, then that will be the case.

We know that Great Britain have already qualified for Rio, and with Ulstermen Iain Lewers, Mark Gleghorne and David Ames established in their line-up and Ian Sloan knocking on the door, it looks like there will be a minimum three and possibly four going.

But if Ireland qualify too, and it seems very likely, then there is every chance that coach Craig Fulton will have at least eight Ulstermen in his ranks - probably nine, and possibly up to 10.

At the moment Eugene Magee, John Jackson, Peter Caruth, Chris Cargo, Michael Watt, Paul Gleghorne, Matthew Bell and Michael Robson are the eight Ulstermen in Fulton's squad for the European Championships, which have just started in London.

And that doesn't count the injured Jonathan Bell and the recovering-from-injury Bruce McCandless, or Stephen Dowds (work commitments) and Drew Carlisle who were part of the successful World League 3 campaign.

Exciting times indeed, and you can't blame administrators north and south of the border for being optimistic about what way the sport is going to go over the next few years. So exactly what needs to happen for Ireland's men to make it to Rio?

At the moment they are second in line to qualify, following their excellent fifth-place finish in the World League 3 series in early July.

As long as neither of the two bottom-ranked teams, France and Russia, win the Europeans, which finish next Saturday, then the Irish will move up to first in waiting.

That's because the big four in Europe - Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and England (GB) - have already qualified through the World League 3, so if one of them are crowned champions, the automatic place at Rio for the European champions goes to the next best placed team from the World League series.

That happens to be Spain, who are fifth ranked in Europe, so it seems certain that they will get the nod for Rio.

Ireland would then step up to first in waiting, and assuming all goes to plan in Europe, the last scenario is the Oceania Championships in October.

World champions Australia have already qualified for the Games, so if they are crowned their continental champions again, then their automatic place goes to Ireland.

So there you have it. It looks like both Great Britain and Ireland will be going to Brazil unless there is a freak result somewhere.

Ulster's executive manager Angela Platt said over a year ago that the aim here was to see hockey participation rise by 17 per cent and that the target was to have 18,000 playing on a regular basis each week by the year 2017.

If there are a dozen or more Ulstermen playing in Rio, then there is a whole new bunch of heroes for kids to follow in the future.

There's no doubt that people are growing tired of watching over-paid professional footballers roll over injured at the touch of a feather and the number of bad refereeing decisions that turn a game on its head as legislators continually refuse to follow rugby, cricket, tennis and hockey by using video equipment for controversial decisions.

Yes, expect Angela to hit those figures in her four-year plan as more and more kids take up the stick as their first-choice sport.

In the meantime, Ireland's first objective in this week's Europeans is to finish in the top six, which ensures they don't drop into the second tier.

That means their opening game this morning against France (8.30am) is crucial, as their remaining pool games are against current European champions Germany (tomorrow, 8.30pm) and World No. 4 Belgium (Tuesday, 1.15pm).

Belfast Telegraph


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