Ward ready for top-level test
Stephen Ward is relishing the chance to test himself against World Cup opposition as he targets qualification for Euro 2016.
The 28-year-old defender, who has spent the last season on loan at Sky Bet Championship side Brighton from Wolves, has returned to the Ireland squad under new manager Martin O'Neill this season after being discarded by predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni.
He started Sunday night's 2-1 home defeat by Turkey and will hope to retain his place as the degree of difficulty increases markedly over the next fortnight with friendlies against Italy, Costa Rica and Portugal, all of whom are using the games as part of their preparations for the World Cup finals in Brazil.
However, that is a challenge Ward insists he and his team-mates welcome as they look towards September's opening qualifier in Georgia.
He said: "You want to test yourself and especially for us going into a tough qualifying group, you want to play against these teams.
"People will look at it and say it might be tougher to get results, but sometimes you learn a lot more about yourself and about the squad when you play against these top teams, and that's what the management will think, especially going into a tough qualifying campaign.
"The more they know about us, the better. You could maybe have chosen easier fixtures, but they want us to go in against these teams and they will definitely learn a lot about us in these next three weeks."
Ward, of course, was part of the Ireland team which fared so poorly in the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine as they slipped to successive defeats by Croatia, Spain and Italy, and a disappointing showing in the World Cup qualifying campaign that subsequently cost Trapattoni his job.
Replacement O'Neill is busily trying to put his stamp on the squad, and while a more expansive style is yet to pay dividends in terms of results, Ward believes significant progress is being made.
He said: "I feel we are getting very close. I think these next couple of weeks will be really vital for us in terms of getting to know how he wants us to play and getting the philosophy on board.
"At the minute, we are playing a really attractive style of football. We are keeping the ball well and we are not just keeping it without purpose.
"We are creating chances, getting the ball wide and getting the ball into the box."
One of the main beneficiaries of O'Neill's approach is playmaker Wes Hoolahan, a man whose treatment by Trapattoni baffled his admirers.
The Norwich man has started three of the four games of the Ulsterman's reign to date and is revelling in the opportunity afforded him, even if results have not necessarily gone his side's way.
Hoolahan said: "It's lovely. It's great to get on the pitch and hopefully show what I can do.
"We are playing well. We are passing the ball well, we are creating a lot of chances. It's not like we are not playing well - then you have something to worry about.
"But you are playing against a world-class team in Turkey, they are well-drilled, so there were positives."
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