Ireland begin bid for place at Tokyo Games
Conor Harte hopes a major "stock take" after December's World Cup can set Ireland on the road to the 2020 Olympics.
They start their journey to Tokyo this weekend with a double-header in the group stages of the FIH Series Finals in Le Touquet, France, facing Scotland tomorrow and Egypt on Sunday.
The top seeded Green Machine complete the group against minnows Singapore on Tuesday, hoping to top the group and go straight into the semi-finals. Second and third in the group advance to the quarter-finals with the top two overall from the eight team event assured of a direct Olympic qualifier later this year.
Harte reckons the tournament will be a big test of character to bounce back from their surprise group stage exit in December. It was the first time Ireland had played below their world ranking in a tournament in over a decade and it stung badly.
"We've been fortunate over 10 years, having successful tournament after tournament, qualifying for the Olympics, World Cups and medaling in Europe. The World Cup felt odd and unfamiliar."
The 31-year-old says the impact of coach Craig Fulton's exit to Belgium five months before the World Cup could not be underestimated with new boss Alexander Cox and assistant Kai de Jager only given a short time to get things in place.
"We had to debrief really openly. We weren't fit, strong or powerful enough. Maybe the World Cup was what we needed (for Tokyo) - a stock take of where we are and what we need to improve."
Coach Cox has made some big calls since then, leaving out high-scoring striker Alan Sothern and midfield dynamo Kirk Shimmins. He has favoured more converted midfielders than usual with Sean Murray and Michael Robson likely to be the flyers linking the counter-attacks to a two-man forward line.
Ireland have not been beaten by the Scots in any of their last 20 meetings dating back to 2006 while Egypt can prove a handful, as they did in the World Cup qualifiers when they limited Ireland to a 2-1 win. Singapore, though, are likely to face a hiding in the same way their women fell 11-0 on Tuesday to the girls in green.
After that, it gets more complicated with World Cup quarter-finalists France and the always dangerous Korea lying in wait.