Five reasons for optimism after Ireland’s trip to Malta

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Now that the dust has settled and we are one week removed from Ireland men’s trip to Malta for the ‘International Handball Tournament 2016’ (4 & 5 November), the senior team have returned to their clubs in Ireland and abroad licking their wounds after four straight defeats against Malta (23:18 & 23:21) and U23 Israel (34:17 & 29:18). While on paper these results seem disappointing there are, however, reasons for positivity heading into 2017…

1. 2016 was a fresh start

2016 was a year, which represented a new phase for Ireland’s senior men. It is a year for a new beginning after a turbulent 2014/15 period marked by a change in coaches, the retirement of the old guard (and bizarrely some youth prospects), long-term injuries and a general lack of direction. With this new start head coach, Roman Abramenko, has given valuable experience to the youth of Irish handball over 2016, and while this may have been a baptism of fire for some, it will in no doubt be of huge benefit in 2017.

2. Youth on their side

The squad that travelled to Malta, for example, contained the likes of Colm Thiel (17) of HC Erlangen who made his senior debut at 16. Thiel impressed on his first outings for the boys in green in 2015 despite his young age, and is a real prospect at left back. Thomas Krohn Grace (18), the powerful line player based in Denmark made his debut for the NT in Malta, and he will no doubt be hot on the heels team captain Alex Kulesh for court time in 2017. His brother, Joshua Krohn Grace (20) also made his debut and it took only ten minutes for him to find his footing in his first internationals, blasting in some 23 goals in his first four games for Eire. Chris Bregazzi (19) was another debutant who really threw down the gauntlet, the left-hander combined well with Krohn Grace on the right-hand side to net a total of 13 goals over the weekend.

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3. The positives were significant

Reconstructing this team from the back out, head coach Roman Abramenko put huge emphasis on defence in 2016. Abramenko’s hard-hitting, bodies on the line style 6-0 defensive system has had its teething phase but in Malta it really started to look like a real unit, and gave both Israel and Malta huge problems. The Ireland-based players were the torch-bearers in this regard with defensive stalwarts emerging in the likes of Marius Deac, team captain Alex Kulesh, and Julian Eberle.

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Should this upward trend continue and if Abramenko can further nurture players to join and solidify the aforementioned trio, the defence of the future looks strong. All of this combined with Abramenko starting to build an attack around the likes of Bregazzi and Krohn Grace in 2017, the boys in green could look like a real force to be reckoned with come the IHF Emerging Nations 2017.

4. First international tests in over a year

The last international an Irish team was involved dates back to an unfortunate day in September 2015, when the Irish team had an extremely poor showing (46:16) against a Great Britain selection in the Copper Box in London. Their performance led the team to rethink their approach to the training set up and thus a plan was devised for the senior squad to meet more regularly for smaller camps over 2016. Hence the team met in Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and Ireland for training camps with Malta ending 2016.

Anyone present in the camp could see the clear leap in progress made over the year; from the first trip to Austria losing all their matches with local club teams, to Wittenberge, where they won all but one of their ties, to finally the latest outing to Malta during which they just came up short twice against the Maltese national team, a team that just two years ago beat a similar Great Britain selection.

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5. Timing of the losses

It may have been frustrating for all of those involved, but from the beginning of the year, the mantra that 2016 was solely about making progress, not about the results on paper was firmly embedded into the squad. Furthermore, the timing of these narrow losses will only serve as further fuel for the team’s ultimate goal of the IHF Emerging Nations 2017 in June. And with a bigger pool of Irish players to choose from than ever before, each and every player will do their utmost to gain Abramenko’s stamp of approval come summer.

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PHOTOS: Daryl Azzopardi