Cregan set to break Irish caps record

Fortune favours the laid-back. Or perhaps it just favours the talented as Eimear Cregan stands on the cusp of setting the new mark for Irish women’s international caps this weekend when she captains the side in the Four-Nations event in Essen, Germany.

Should the 28-year-old play two of Ireland’s three games this weekend against Australia, India and the host nation, Cregan will surpass former Cork Harlequins’ club mate Rachael Kohler’s mark of 166.

Speaking to the Hook, the Limerick woman spoke of a number of twists of fate which shaped her hockey career, possibly veering it away from what might have been a glittering life in camogie.

Coming from a family steeped in a stick-and-ball sport of another kind – her uncle Eamonn excelled in Limerick hurling green – hockey barely registered until a chance try-out aged 12 when a friend moved to her neighbourhood and coaxed her down to Lansdowne for a knock-about.

This first twist of fortune immediately had her hooked though her outlook from those times was refreshingly simple and has stayed with her.

“I didn’t have any expectations, I just went out to enjoy it and it went from there.”

“I absolutely hadn’t a clue of the rules and I was obviously from a big GAA family. My friend asked me to come down, gave me a stick and shinguards; and the minute I picked up the stick I absolutely loved it. A lot of it would transfer over from the ground hurling. I loved the smaller skills, the dodging and so on, from the very start.”

Camogie and hockey continued side-by-side during her teens as call-ups to Limerick and Munster’s underage sides came along. At this stage, she says there “no real pressure” to make a decision to focus either way but as she stepped into the adult arena something finally had to give, with the tough decision to give hockey precedence in her first year of a sport’s science degree in UL.

“In college, I tried to play both but there was a lot on. I picked up a small injury in a camogie match and was only out for a couple of weeks but it made me think. The honour of possibly playing for my country dragged me along. Its brilliant playing for your county but I really wanted to play for my country.”

She would return to the gaelic game a couple of years later, winning an Ashbourne Cup for her university during a period international hockey downtime.

By that stage, though, she had already been elevated to Riet Kuper’s national setup. Once again, fate dealt a sizable hand as the bout of foot and mouth disease in 2001 aided her passage to making a senior debut.

“I was in the Irish U-21s but a tournament was cancelled due to foot and mouth as we couldn’t travel. Because I wouldn’t have any hockey for the summer, Riet picked up on this and gave me a two week trial.

“I had no expectations, I was going to try as hard as I could but there was no pressure – I thought I was just going to enjoy the bonus. But I was kept on and we trained throughout the summer from April and got my first cap in August against Wales.”

She was one of a quartet to benefit in such a manner – Nikki Symmons, Catherine Murray and Linda O’Neill the others. While it is likely she would have been elevated to the senior squad in time, the call-up gave her an opportunity to forge her way into eventual plans for the 2002 World Cup panel in Australia.

But it was a first cap in which she admitted, in a rare display or nerves, to being “petrified” when Kuper called her to step on but an early lay-off to Irish legend Lynsey McVicker helped settle the nerves.

Another soothing influence was Kohler – her predecessor at the top of the caps tree.

“I was lucky to play with Rachael in the Munster senior squad and she was always one people looked up to. As soon as I played on Munster teams, she was the name. She’s just so unassuming, so modest but so brilliant on the pitch.

“At the time of the World Cup, I remember Rachael got her 153rd cap, passing Mary Logue and looking up to her and thinking ‘I can’t believe she has so many caps’.

“She just gets on and does her job, with no flashiness about her, working hard and doing the simple thing. She was just a really good role model and know I always looked up to her.

“She was really welcoming when I came onto the squad along with Karen Bateman. For me being 19 and them experienced Munster and international players, they really looked after me.”

Their presence helped her transition to Cork Harlequins after a brief stint with Push in Breda, playing in the Dutch Hoofdklasse – a club which reminded her very much of her roots – nabbing a quick opportunity to test herself against the best in world club hockey.

“It’s like their version of the GAA with a club in every parish. So many clubs, so many facilities, so many people willing to invest in the club and really family-orientated. It was like playing the equivalent of an international every week. The standard over there was so high so we played against a lot of the girls on the Dutch team.”

Since then, she has been part of Harlequins’ long-running dominance in Munster before moving back to Catholic Institute mid-season in her native city who now have a debut IHL season to look forward to.

Reflecting on her career, she cites that World Cup, along with the 2005 European championships held in Belfield, as highlights while a hat-trick in Korea against the host nation was a personal boon.

“To play in the World Cup in any sport is brilliant. I remember having a massive crowd when we played Australia, the whole stadium was full and I’ve never played in anything like that.

“The Europeans in Dublin, thanks to the sponsorship of ESB, really got the ball rolling. That tournament we got a lot of tv and it was great to have people afterwards talking about the game. From then on, a lot more people got more interested in hockey and a lot of people I know who are GAA followers started to take an interest.”

Asked about the influence of chance and fate on her career, though, Cregan prefers to call it ‘taking opportunities’.

“If my friend hadn’t moved house and got me to take up hockey, I know I wouldn’t have played hockey and played camogie for the rest of my career.

“The foot and mouth time, you never know. I could have gone up from the U-21s, Bridget McKeever [Cleland] came up through from there when I was shipped through with Nikki Symmons.

“I suppose you have to take your opportunities and I think I’ve done that. I always wanted to play for Ireland and that drives you on. But it does take a lot of hard work and commitment. You do put certain things on hold in your life; you miss a lot of parties but at the end of the day, you get to play for your country and see
the world. We’ve been so lucky and I feel so privileged to have been able to play the last nine years of international hockey.”

Looking to the future, she believes there is more to come from the current set of players with the 2012 Olympics the big marker on the horizon.

“We’re constantly improving. I don’t think I’ve played with a squad which has been so tactically aware and technically aware due to the teaching of Gene [Muller] and Dennis [Pritchard]. We can adapt to different situations which we showed in Chile against Australia where we used completely different tactics to the other games.

“It’s great for us to have so many opportunities to play so many top games. We’re a young team, we were obviously disappointed with our performance in Chile but it’s so good to have a month off and then be able to play in a high quality tournament. Without the ESB, the Sports Council and SINI support, we wouldn’t be able to play those games.

“This team, as long as we stay together and keep improving, we really are focussing on getting an outcome from every tournament to build to getting that fourth in Europe in August 2011 where we’ll be a serious force to reckon with.”

As for breaking the caps record, she’s typically humble about that likely possibility this weekend: “I’ve been very lucky to get into the squad, selected by Riet Kuper, and to play in a World Cup and four European championships. I do still take one game at a time and every game as a bonus and never take being selected for granted. It’s just another game but I’m obviously honoured and delighted.”

*** Ireland play Australia tonight (6pm, Irish time) looking for revenge for their defeat in the World Cup Qualifiers in late April in Chile. The Ozzies are building for the Commonwealth Games but enter this competition without the injured Casey Eastham and Kate Hollywood.

On their current European tour, Australia were on top against Great Britain but have shared two results with Germany this week, losing 6-2 in the opening game.

Germany follow on Saturday while India are the opponents on Sunday. Cregan says of those challenges: “We owe Germany a good fight considering they beat us in the Europeans. India, we haven’t played them in a few years but we’d be hoping to beat them. All matches are tough and they’ll be skilful with good natural flair and it’s down to very hard work in all three games to get a couple of wins.”

Partners of The Hook