Northern exposure in Naas
WITH the European Small Nations Championships just three months away, the Irish men and women's volleyball teams are aiming to beat Northern Ireland at the annual St Patrick's International this weekend in Naas.
Over the past year, both teams have benefited from a more organised structure and new players have joined the squads. New talent in the men's squad includes Niall Madden from the Ulster Elks, Andrew McCarthy from UCC and UCD's Oisin Mc Ardle.
At the other end of the scale is Joe O'Keeffe of Ballymun Patriots, while fellow "old hands" include Jonathan Whitty of the Jets, John Grace and Sean Mac Seoin (both Garda) and captain Hugh Nohilly of Aer Lingus.
"We now have a core of players who have turned out regularly for training, plus a few others who make it when they can," says Irish men's coach Laurent Cauet. "Work commitments are the big problem, so I hope in the summer, we will have more time to train."
Both men and women's team will play in European Small Nations qualifiers next June. Three group qualifications rounds take place with the top two from each making the play-offs.
In their group, the men face Cyprus, Faroe Islands, Scotland and Andorra in Andorra.
Last year, Northern Ireland's men finished fourth overall in the Small Nations, which adds extra needle to the weekend's matches.
"We can't afford to travel much for matches, so this weekend is important because it will allow us to measure our progress to date," says Cauet.
Both men and women face a busy weekend, with the women playing a premier selection on Sunday morning followed by Northern Ireland later in the day.
"The plan is to maximise the playing time for all squads so most of them will play twice," says Irish women's team coach Joey Cardiff.
The women travel to Malta from June 11 where they play San Marino, Luxembourg and Iceland as well as the host nation.
Before that, the Irish junior women travel to Luxembourg from April 8 for a tournament against Malta, Cyprus, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.
At the weekend, the men and women's junior squad will play two matches apiece on Saturday.