Grundie cautious as Irish World Cup stars look to pick up where they left off
Interim Ireland coach Gareth Grundie is urging caution as the World Cup silver medallists return to competitive hockey for the first time since their magical run last summer in London.
Now ranked eighth in the world, they enter this week's FIH Series Finals - the first step in the Olympic qualifying process - as the star attraction at Banbridge.
They get their group campaign under way today (3.0) against a Malaysia side (ranked 22nd) they have beaten in each of their four meetings in the last decade.
Ireland have a similar record against tomorrow's opponents the Czech Republic, while the only meeting against Tuesday's final round-robin rivals Singapore ended in a 10-0 win.
Should Grundie's side top the group - which most onlookers will expect - it will mean a place in the semi-finals and a big step closer to the target of a top-two finish from the eight-team tournament.
"World Cup silver has certainly given the players more belief," Grundie said of the event.
"But they're also very aware of how difficult it will be, how close matches can be, how competitive they are, how it can swing very quickly either way."
Indeed, there is a perception shift for the Irish team who are now in a position they could only have dreamed of a year ago; medallists with more and more assurances of financial support, a training venue in construction and, at long last, an upgrade to the National Hockey Stadium ongoing.
Neither capital project was enacted quickly enough though, hence the move to Banbridge.
The coaching shake-up created by Graham Shaw's recent departure also tempers things with Grundie having been in the interim head coach role only for practice matches against the Ulster U-18 boys, Ireland U-17 boys and the India U-21 women.
As such, he is wary of suggesting it will be a cake walk, especially with a few sharks lurking in the other group, with Korea the ones to avoid.
For the most part, he has put faith in the panel that planted itself in the public consciousness.
Substitute goalkeeper Grace O'Flanagan has taken a step back to focus on her career, opening the door for 20-year-old Emma Buckley who had an exceptional season with Racing Club de Bruxelles.
Nikki Evans and Yvonne O'Byrne are not selected this time, with newcomers Sarah Hawkshaw - sister of Ireland U-20 rugby captain David (currently missing their World Cup campaign through injury) - and Bethany Barr coming in. Otherwise, 15 of the London heroines are back for the Olympic push.
Elsewhere, Glenanne's men conclude their season a month after their last competitive match as they travel to Switzerland for the EuroHockey Club Trophy. Top spot would earn Ireland - and specifically Lisnagarvey - a second ticket to the Euro Hockey League next season. It will be tough, though, as they travel without Jerome Saeys, while David Keogh is injured.
They drew 4-4 with Belarus side SC Stroitel Brest yesterday and will face hosts Rotweiss Wettingen today before completing the group tomorrow against Portugal's Casa Pia Atletico Clube.
Whoever finishes in top spot goes through to Monday's final.