Ahead of their two back-to-back Olympic qualifying matches against Canada in the Energia Stadium on November 2-3, the Irish women's hockey team are excited to recreate the magic that captivated a nation back home that earned them a World Cup silver medal in 2018.
Irish hockey barely crossed the radar of many people until the summer of 2018, when it became impossible to ignore. The women's team, who arrived at the tournament ranked 15 out of 16 teams, shattered all expectations with an incredible run that led them to the final. They arrived home to a hero's welcome, not to mention countless new fans.
This success, though, does not guarantee them a spot in world hockey's next major tournament: the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. If they were to make it, they would be the first women's field team to reach an Olympic games. The final hurdle they must overcome to achieve this goal is two back-to-back games against Canada, also hoping for that elusive spot.
For the first time, however, Ireland will have the advantage of a significant home crowd to cheer them on, as both games are being held at the Energia Stadium in Donnybrook with a capacity of 6,000, by far the largest home crowd the team will have ever played in front of. They do, however, have some idea of what it will be like from their dedicated fans who travelled to the 2018 World Cup in London.
World Cup highlights
"One of the highlights of the World Cup," Roisin Upton says, "was just before every game they would ask the crowd to cheer for whichever team they were supporting".
"When they asked them to cheer for the Irish, it was just this booming sound taking over the stadium. That was from our very first game against the USA, when not many people back home even knew we had an Irish hockey team, never mind had one at the World Cup. So it always makes a difference. We can hear it and we can feel it."
In order to host two hockey matches, a 'pop-up' pitch is being laid in the Energia Stadium over the current synthetic pitch by Big Stadium Hockey, which has recently developed the technology to bring the high-tec surface needed for hockey temporarily to a large stadium. It will be laid a week in advance, allowing the team to train on it beforehand, and Irish Hockey are calling for volunteers to help with this set-up process.
What is different from the World Cup however, is the amount of support the team is receiving. While they were still without any sponsor until just over a month before the event, now that original sponsor, SoftCo, has been joined by several others. These include Park Developments and Saba, who provide meals for players after training, and hosted the team at a lunch to support their Olympic qualifying campaign. As a non-professional team, the players have to juggle their training and matches with careers and study, so financial support has allowed some of them greater flexibility, working part-time instead of full-time.
Captain Katie Mullan explains that "it's allowed us to be much more sustainable. Before you would have noticed players careers cut short because they would eventually need to prioritise their working career. Whereas being able to work part time, train part time, getting that financial support that we're getting from our sponsors, I think you will notice players careers lasting longer and at the end of the day, there's a huge amount of experience in our squad right now. We don't want players to have to retire young because the training setup doesn't facilitate them to work and train together."
The team is also enjoying their new base in Abbottstown, open just weeks, which allows them to train at the times best suited to them. Before, without a pitch dedicated to the national team, they had to train around the schedule of the various clubs and schools whose pitches they used.
With this ever-more professional training setup, the team will not be content to rest on their laurels from the World Cup. "The goal for this group was always to get to the Olympics," Anna O'Flanagan explains. "We actually said a few years ago that we would use the World Cup as a testing ground to see where we sat in world hockey. Obviously, we went to the World Cup, and we sat pretty well. So for us there wasn't much need to motivate us to aim for the Olympics. We didn't need to say 'how are we going to do this', it was just, 'we're going to do this'."
What makes all the hard work easier however, is that the squad is such a tight-knit group. "We are genuinely just really good mates," Katie says. "A lot of us have been together for a long time now, and when you train together that much you need to get along, and we do that. And I think that's evident every time we go out we're in public together and it's the one thing that people do always say about us."
There are limited tickets available for the two matches, and both games will also be broadcast by RTÉ at 7.00pm on November 2nd and 7.10pm on November 3rd.
Featured image: Hockey Ireland
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