Irish coach Gene Muller says his selection for the European championships – which get underway on August 20 against the German hosts in Monchengladbach – was guided by the need for a more physical zeal.
He called up UCC’s Miriam Crowley and Loreto’s Niamh Small in his final panel for the competition, making it two changes in forward personnel from last month’s Champions Challenge with Nicci Daly and Jean McDonnell the players to step out.
Ireland face world top four sides Germany and England as well as Belgium in the group stages, needing to cause at least one major shock to breach the top two and stay in contention for one of the Olympic qualification places.
To do so, Muller says his side needs a tougher outlook with less room for risk-taking: “Up front was the toughest decision. We have a lot of players who are very close in standard.
“Miriam Crowley and Niamh Small came back in. Both those players are more conservative than the alternates we didn’t pick but are more able to play against physical types of defenders.
“That’s what we’ll be sure to face against Germany and England. In the latter stages, also, it will be critical.
“Games will be tighter and more tactical than the Champions Challenge. Mistakes will be magnified at the Europeans where we could get away with more and afford to pick players with more flair and creativity.
“We’re going to have less of those moments at the Europeans. Mistake management and set pieces will be key for us. Inevitably it will come down to those things in major tournaments in my experience and I selected on that basis.”
With England hosting the 2012 Olympics, an added significance is placed on the German tie on day one of the competition. Should the English win the competition, an extra qualifying place to London opens up, meaning Ireland would prefer to possibly qualify for the semi-finals with them at the expense of the Germans.
When the Hook posed the suggestion his side needed a shock result, Muller was very much aware of the magnitude of effecting it against the hosts.
“Essentially, the opening game of the tournament is that shock. You want England to be going through with you. If you lose to Germany and then beat England then you need to reach the final to reach the Olympics. The way its setup, it has to be Germany.
“At the same time, it’s game one in the tournament and you don’t want that to be the fork in the road. In my tenure, and I think in Riet Kuper’s, I don’t think Ireland has beaten Germany so we’re talking about unprecedented results. We’ve prepared well and can play with some freedom but there is a good chance we’ll end up losing that game if you go by history.”
He is not willing to write off the danger a rising Belgian force hold, either.
“Then you have to face a side whose full focus has been to beat us for the past two years so it is a tightrope. If they beat us, it’s been a successful tournament for them. Belgium have beaten South Africa and Germany in the past few weeks so they are a good team. I’ve just come back from watching them and I think they have jumped a level so they’ll be very difficult to play against.”
Ireland have five build-up games remaining before they head out to Germany, starting on Thursday evening when they face Spain in the first of three challenge matches in Belfield (7.30pm).
They finish their preparation next week with an eye-catching pair of games against world number one side Argentina, again in Belfield.
Speaking about this lead-in to the Euros, Muller said: “We decided we would have a lead-up to the Champions Challenge that would exactly mirror that of the Europeans.
“Part of that included a really intensive month of physical training. It’s a priority for us. Physically, I think we needed to do it to have a chance in close games. We addressed that intensively in the CPP.
“I think we were one of the fittest teams in the Champions Challenge and we got that using a certain protocol, a month off dedicated to physical training, then some matches and then a short taper toward the tournament. We did it for the Champions Challenge and we didn’t really want to mess with it.”
Irish women’s panel for European Championships (club/caps): E Clarke (Leicester, vice capt/109); L Colvin (Loreto/51); A Connery (Hermes/24); M Crowley (UCC/11); E Gray (GK, Hermes/27); M Harvey (Pegasus/55); L Jacob (Hermes/83); S McCarthy (Hermes/21); S McCay (Old Alex/109); A O’Flynn (Hermes/32); J O’Halloran (Railway Union/63); C Sargent (Cork Harlequins/82); N Small (Loreto/36); P Smithwick (GK, Old Alex/4); E Smyth (Railway Union/41); A Speers (Railway Union, capt/93); N Symmons (Loreto/151); C Watkins (UCD/17).
Upcoming fixtures (all in Belfield):
August 4: Ireland v Spain, 7.30pm;
August 5: Ireland v Spain, 7.30pm;
August 7: Ireland v Spain, 12pm;
August 12: Ireland v Argentina, 5pm
August 13: Ireland v Argentina, 4pm
** Pictures courtesy of Brendan Moran/Sportsfile; for more of his pics from today’s press conference, click here