Belfast Star’s Keelan Cairns and his former team-mate Paul Dick, most recently of Killester, both feature in coach Colin O’Reilly’s squad for the European Small Nations Championship, scheduled for this summer in Moldova.
Quick quiz. Where is Moldova?
Ok, a hint…it’s north-east of Romania. And it’s light blue on that map.
Moldova is perhaps best known for author Tony Hawks book “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis”, a project to ascertain whether or not the national football team of the former Soviet Republic were good at sports other than football.
Geographically European but outside the European Union, Moldova gained independence in August 1991 following the collapse of the USSR. It quickly began competing in international sport as a sovereign state, finding success in wrestling, boxing and in canoeing. It has been less successful in “western” sports.
The tournament, which takes place in Chisinau between June 26 and July 3 offers the Irish squad, which battled in the Sino-European games last year against China, Italy and Russia and represented a significant portion of the team in the FIBA Eurocup, an opportunity to chase silverware against the the small nations of Europe.
The last time the Irish team competed at the international level was in the 2009 EuroBasket qualifying where they faced Georgia, Sweden, Slovakia and Luxembourg. In 2005, the team was on the fringes of qualifying for the then top level of European international basketball, FIBA EuroBasket Division A, but lost to Denmark in a playoff. Now, Basketball Ireland are attempting to re-enter the international scene through the Small Nations competition.
So, who are these “small nations”? Well, Andorra, Armenia, Gibraltar, Malta, Moldova, San Marino and Wales make up the field for this version of the tournament.
Secondly, what exactly is a “small nation”? Well, in terms of population, the participants vary in size. Andorra has 85,000 inhabitants; Armenia has 3m, Gibraltar (technically a British Overseas Territory rather than a state in its own right) has 32,000; Malta has 445,000; Moldova has 2.9m; San Marino has 32,000; and Wales has 3m. Ireland has 6.4m people and indeed Dublin has more people than most of the participating nations in the tournament formerly known as the Euro C’s.
In terms of past success at the tournament, Ireland hosted and won the tournament in 1994, defeating Cyprus in the final 81-78, but are far from the only past winners competing in Moldova.
Andorra are the two-time defending champions and five-time winners. Their squad is made up almost entirely of players from the ACB’s MoraBanc Andorra though, it must be emphasised, none of those in the Andorran side actually play for the ACB side
Armenia are first time participants, indeed the 2016 tournament represents their first ever competition and there is little evidence of national team activity in recent years. Coach Carl Badakian, formerly of Cleveland State University, has a presence on social media, though, and you can follow him @CoachBadakian.
Gibraltar, Malta and Wales are the only ever-presents. While Wales and Malta can both boast a second place finish, Gibraltar have never managed better than fourth. Hosts Moldova boast two second place finishes, most recently in the 2012 tournament hosted by San Marino. Their team boasts players mainly from the domestic league but several players of 6’6″ and over.
The Irish Squad
The Irish team features Jordan Blount who is currently enrolled at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Brian Fitzpatrick of Horsens IC in Denmark, and several players from the national competitions: Templeogue’s Conor Grace, Stephen James and Lorcan Murphy, Swords Thunder’s Kevin Lacey, C&S UCC Demons Kyle Hosford, Adrian O’Sullivan and Ciaran O’Sullivan along with player-coach O’Reilly and Northern stars Cairns and Dick, currently at Belfast Star and Pyrobel Killester respectively. Hosford and Grace will co-captain the squad.
Fitzpatrick is a first-time member of the squad. Formerly of Bucknell University, he is eligible to represent Ireland at international level (though not, as we have covered at length in the past, actually eligible to compete in domestic competitions as an Irish player) through his Cavan-born grandfather who served in the NYPD. He adds size to the roster that has lost Latvian Martin Provizors from the Sino-Euro games squad and does not include the injured Jason Killeen. This leaves Keelan Cairns as the only domestic big and his shooting range demands that he spend time away from the key. Eanna’s Conor Gallagher waits in reserve.
For Cairns and Dick, this represents the first time they will be able to represent Ireland in an official international tournament and the two, who played together for Mike Calo’s legendary Lisburn 94 side a few years ago before both headed to the United States – Cairns to the University of Pennsylvania via Barking Academy and Belfast Star; Dick to Franklin Pierce University – commented that preparations had been going well.
The training sessions have been intense and competitive. Up until this past weekend practice was still in the selection phase so everyone was playing for their spot. Now that the final 12 has been selected, I don’t expect the intensity to drop. The European championships are only 6 weeks away, so it’s time to focus, fine tune and really come together as a team.
This was echoed by Paul Dick:
The sessions have been great so far…the competitiveness is there which is what you need to build…if everyone puts the work in Monday to Friday we should be in good nick for going over there
The players head to Moldova in high confidence. Keelan Cairns noted:
Although this is the first official national team in a while, a lot of the players have been involved in the China trip and the Hibernia team. The continuity from that will help this team move forward, we have a years experience running Coach Colin O’Reilly’s system as well as playing together and getting used to what each of us can bring to the table.
Paul Dick is also full of confidence:
Its a tournament we are looking to win and any other result would be very disappointing. I’m sure bringing in Fitzpatrick will be a big help to neutralize the size issue we have at the moment.
The lack of funding that effectively shuttered the senior basketball programme in Irish basketball for so long continues to present problems. The trip to Moldova is a self-funded trip and players are asked to contribute £550. If you are able, and would like to help Keelan and Paul travel to Moldova, you can contribute here.