By most statistics, 2014 was a particularly sweet one for Ireland’s Green Army. A silver medal at the Champions Challenge in Glasgow was certainly the highlight, especially when considered they entered the tournament as the seventh ranked side.
Rather than exist in isolation, though, Darren Smith’s side have kicked on since then. They ended their hectic year with a seventh straight win when dismissing a below par Scotland 4-0 in Milltown, ending the year with 19 wins from 35 games.Compared to a horrid 2013, bowing out of the World League in round two before enduring relegation to the second tier of the European championships, Smith’s outlook over the festive period will be a far rosier one.
Just one of the losses sustained this year came against lower ranked opposition – Scotland, one place below Ireland – while four sides above them – Korea, South Africa, Spain (three times) and Belgium (twice) – were beaten.
The series whitewash over Scotland signs off the Irish women’s test match engagements for 2014 and Smith is hopeful the side can continue the upward curve into the New Year when the real business begins with World League round two in March in Dublin.
“Overall, 2014 has been a pretty good year,” he told The Hook. “The girls have got a bit better. We have to be mindful for that tournament in March; we are really lucky it is in Ireland.
“If we do a good job in each of the matches, put on good attacking pressure and create opportunities, then make it very tough for us to be broken down. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
He lamented his side’s finishing at times during the Scotland series, suggesting they could have been more clincial. Performance has been on the rise as he looks to implement a high tempo game-plan.
“All we were trying to do, over all the tests this year, is improve; to get our structure working, our outletting and midfield operating and how our forwards set-up… building all that up.”
With Audrey O’Flynn, Cliodhna Sargent and Yvonne O’Byrne not involved this week, Katie Mullan and, in the third test, Emma Smyth were employed in full-back roles.
Both would normally be seen further up the pitch but Smith reckons both could fulfill a role if called upon.
“Defenders touch the ball more than most and so its good to have a capability [on the ball]. Smythy and Katie Mullan are good like that; you want people on the ball who can handle it really well or else you will end up defending an awful lot.
“Katie played two tests against India as a defender and also a lot in squad games. With Audrey not with us for this series, we wanted to give her a try in the position and I think she did pretty well.
“She’s heck of a good little player and is quite smart. There might be subtleties to work on but, for the most part, she will be alright.”
Looking at some of the other players to catch the eye, it has been a break-out year for Emily Beatty whose relentless energy and pace have seen her employed in midfield rather than on the wings where she grew up.
“The way hockey is, the type of player we admire and are trying to pick, has speed. We want them to be able to play at a tempo.“It’s not that we are trying to be reckless but that’s what hockey is. It needs to be athletic and Beats [Beatty] is just that. Having her speed – along with Nicci Daly – coming from midfield along with Chloe Watkins it gives us an engine power that we are after.”
Without doubt, though, the jewel in the crown this year has been Megan Frazer. Installed as captain for the Champions Challenge, her roving role as a pseudo sweeper with license to get forward has given the side real purpose along with a decent amount of goals.
Smith describes her as “a good person, a good character and a heck of a good hockey player.
“Again, she has the capability. From match statistics, it’s often your central defenders that touch the ball most. If they don’t have ability, you will end up on the back foot. Megan, who we play more as a defensive midfielder than a classic free man, wins the ball a lot.
“She has had a great 2014, superb in the Champions Challenge, and having her around the squad is fantastic.”
Ireland now have two more camps before the end of the year and one non-hockey session before starting a physical block of preparation. January sees the side take in a 12-day trip to Valencia before a heavy February of preparation for the World League round two.
There, Ireland will be the top seed in a tournament with Chile, Belarus, Canada, Lithuania, Turkey, Austria and Ukraine with three sides likely to advance.
On paper, it seems a strong certainty but Smith says the opposition is about as hard as it could have been,
“We have a tough draw in World League 2 against some good teams. We have to make sure we feel good about how we are playing. Because the FIH does the rankings so far back, from effectively 2013, we have drawn five of the top ten seeds. We have Chile and Canada who will be hard-nosed, tough nuts to crack.
“That’s without mentioning Belarus and Ukraine who you can, at times, struggle to break down, so we have a hard job to finish in that top three and have a shot at World League 3 in Valencia.”