THREE talented former students of Royal and Prior, Raphoe have forced their way onto the Irish U21 Hockey panel and have set their sights on being part of the Irish Senior panel in the coming years.
Luke Witherow from Convoy, Ben Wallace from Raphoe and Alexander Tinney from Letterkenny started playing hockey with Raphoe Hockey Club when they were just seven. Fast forward twelve years and the 19-year-olds remain close friends.
Luke and Ben fly out to New York this morning, Friday, as part of the Ireland U21 team who play Argentina, Brazil and the United States in a Four-Nations tournament over the next ten days. Alexander is a non-travelling reserve.
Their next step will be to push on to the U21 panel for tournaments in Belfast and Malaysia over the coming months.
Given that the facilities in Raphoe, home to Donegal’s only hockey club, are archaic by modern standards, it’s a remarkable achievement by these three friends who hope to be part of the Irish Senior panel come the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“During our time in Raphoe we have all represented Ulster and Ireland at underage levels. We started to play for the men’s sides when we turned 15,” Luke explained.
Luke, who currently plays with Banbridge Hockey Club, spent Transition Year playing with Almeerse Hockey Club in Holland. Alex is also with Banbridge while Ben plays with Annadale.
Both Luke and Ben are students at the University of Ulster while Alexander is at Greenmount Agricultural College in Antrim.
Banbridge Hockey Club play in the National League in Ireland while they travelled to Barcelona earlier this year for the European club championship where both Luke and Alexander played against the biggest teams in Europe.
“We had a bad start to the season but we improved and finished just one point off fourth place while Ben’s team (Annadale) avoided relegation,” Luke said.
A utility player, Luke is comfortable in midfield or defence. Ben is a right-back while Alexander is also a defender, playing most of his hockey at either centre-back or left-back.
“I’m more of an attacking midfielder. When we played England a few weeks ago I played up front while Alex was centre back,” he said.
Both Luke and Ben fly out to New York this morning in preparation for the Four Nations tournament.
“All three of us have played for the U21’s nine or ten times at this stage. Our aim is to be part of the Irish senior set-up in time for the next Olympic cycle. None of us expect to make it to Tokyo (2020) but we would hope to be there or thereabouts four years later.
“Likewise, this year’s World Cup (in India) comes just a little too soon for us,” he said.
The three friends came through the ranks together in Raphoe. They also play football together and go away on foreign holidays.
“It’s our dream to be part of the senior panel and we’re very lucky that all three of us are close friends,” he said.
The fact that three Donegal players have made the Ireland U21 squad is a massive achievement for Raphoe Hockey Club.
“We’re from a really small disadvantaged area and we’re part of a club who have been looking for a new pitch for years. Training twice a week with Ireland and Ulster gave us the opportunity to play on proper, state-of-the-art pitches as the old pitch in Raphoe really does hinder your development.
“All through the years our fathers have played a massive part in our development. They all played hockey themselves and they drove us around the country to enable us to attend training sessions.
“Credit is also due to people like Richard Eaton, Rodney Bates and all the underage coaches as well as Richard Tinney who was always there on the sidelines,” Luke said.
After New York their next challenge is to make the Ireland U21 squad which travels to Malaysia in October.
Ireland are currently ranked ninth in the world and the next big step would be to make it into the top eight, attracting a whole new funding bracket from Sport Ireland.
“Both the men’s and women’s teams are moving in the right direction and have qualified for their respective World Cups this year,” he said. While Luke, Ben and Alexander are all Ireland U21 Internationals they still have to self-fund.
“We get no funding to travel up and down to training or taking time off work. It’s tough going at the moment and any financial help would be greatly appreciated,” he said.
Making the Olympics would make all that effort worthwhile for these three friends and extremely talented young sportsmen.
In the meantime, Luke, Ben and Alexander will continue to hone their considerable skills with their respective clubs as well as both Ulster and Ireland.
Posted: 8:49 am May 18, 2018