bann lads out

Electric Ireland FIH Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament, UCD, Dublin 17/3/2012'Ireland vs Malaysia'Ireland's Eugene Magee with Azlan Misron of Malaysia'Mandatory Credit �INPHO/Morgan Treacy *** Local Caption ***
Electric Ireland FIH Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament, UCD, Dublin 17/3/2012'Ireland vs Malaysia'Ireland's Eugene Magee with Azlan Misron of Malaysia'Mandatory Credit �INPHO/Morgan Treacy *** Local Caption ***

Six Banbridge players will be looking to impress new Ireland coach Craig Fulton in Malaysia with one eye on the Olympic qualifications.

Matthew Bell, Eugene Magee, Owen Magee, Bruce McCandless, Drew Carlisle and Steven Dowds make up a third of the squad, who begin their Champions Challenge campaign against New Zealand underway on Saturday.

They’ll also take on Poland (Sunday) and Japan (Tuesday) in the group stages, aiming to secure a spot in the quarter-finals.

Ireland U21 vice-captain and Banbridge man Matthew Bell will add to his five senior caps and is hoping he can secure his spot in Fulton’s squad ahead of next year’s qualifiers.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting the call-up,” he said. “It was quite a surprise.

“We’ll be straight back from this tournament and off to Valencia for a tournament in Spain. There’s also a Four Nations tournament coming to Belfast later on in the summer.

“Hopefully I’ll stay in the squad for those tournaments and get as many caps as possible.

“It’s getting to the stage now that everyone is gearing up for the Olympic qualifications in February. Any time we’re playing, we want to impress the new coach as we’re looking ahead to those qualifications.”

Bell and the Ireland squad set off on a 24 hour journey to Kuantan on Thursday, where the conditions and surroundings will be far from the norm for the Ireland boys.

He said: “The team was only announced on Monday and we left on thursday morning so it was a quick turnaround.

“It’s the first time a lot of us have played in a tournament where world ranking points are up for grabs so we’re really looking forward to it.

“It’ll be a long two and a half weeks playing something like seven matches. The weather will be about 34 or 35 degrees but we have over a week there until our first match so that gives us a bit of time to acclimatize.”

When the action finally gets underway on Saturday, Bell is hoping for a positive campaign and even a rise up the world rankings.

“The aim is really to finish as highly as possible,” he said. “Japan are one place above us in the rankings so if we do well, we can leapfrog them. The aim is to improve our ranking as much as possible.”

“Irish hockey wouldn’t be the most well-funded sport so the higher up the rankings we are, the more chance we have of getting more funding towards Olympic Games and World Cups,” continued Bell.

Bell has taken time out from university to head off to Malaysia, as has Ireland’a highest-capped player Eugene Magee, who will have just a few hours to prepare for a Masters exam on his return.

“I’ll be studying every day unfortunately,” he said.

“I have class test the day after I come back Malaysia, which isn’t exactly ideal.”

Such are the rigours facing the part-time players but Magee is hoping he and his Banbridge team-mates can help Ireland make the long journey worthwhile.

“We’re one of the best teams in the country and it’s good to see so many Banbridge guys in the squad,” he said.

“We’ve all worked hard and all of the guys deserve their place in the squad.

“You don’t care who comes from what club though.

“Everyone is your team-mate and we all get on well. The opposition will be very tough, all we can do is go out and give it our best shot.

“We’re competing against team that are all ranked above us.

“They would provide very tough for a full strength squad so it will be a really big challenge for the guys coming in to the squad.

“It gives the younger guys an opportunity to come in and show their skill.

“They all deserve their opportunity so hopefully they can go and take it.

“We’ll be playing against teams who are preparing for the World Cup so they’ll be sharp. That’ll be great practice for us.

“This is the kick-start that we need to get into the right mind-frame for the qualifications in February.”

The six afren’t the only players in international action as Johnny McKee scored for Ireland U18s against Scotland last week while Timothy Watt and Aaron Reid were on duty with the U21s.