With the men safely through to the next phase of the Olympic qualifying process, Ireland’s women begin their campaign on home turf at Belfield tomorrow against Ukraine, kick-starting their World League 2 campaign.
It marks the start of a campaign that is probably the toughest of the three tournaments at this stage of the competition with only two places, for the moment, guaranteed to reach Round Three where the tickets to Rio will be decided.Uruguay and Italy progressed from a tournament in Montevideo while another couple of teams will be decided in Delhi on Sunday with India, Thailand, Malaysia and Poland are contesting the semi-finals.
How those pan out could create a third place from the tournament in Dublin but reaching the final is very much of paramount importance.
Coach Darren Smith, having observed the other tournaments, is very much of the opinion that Ireland will not have an easy ride despite being the top-ranked side at number 14 in the world.
“I think our draw in World League 2 is the toughest of the three tournaments,” he said. “It is significantly tougher than the one in Uruguay and the one in India.
“Our competition has five teams ranked in the top ten of the tournament rankings [at this phase] – Ukraine, Canada and Ireland are fighting it out for only two or three spots. Chile and Belarus, in the other pool who we will meet in the crossover games, are going to be tough so we need to be ready.”
After Ukraine, Ireland meet Canada (world number 22) on Sunday before facing Turkey (36) on St Patrick’s Day. Doing so on home turf is a huge boon for the side and Smith says that he “can’t wait” for the tournament after a huge amount of preparation in the past 12 months since their last tournament – the silver medal at the Champions Challenge in Glasgow.
That was part of a massive 41 games Ireland played in 2014 in which Ireland beat a number of higher ranked opponents, playing with an exciting flair not seen much in the preceding times.
“I am looking forward to the home support. For the girls, we have so much training in UCD, it is effectively their second home. It’s a tremendous advantage to the first stage of an Olympic qualifying process at our home base.
“That’s coupled with 2014 when we had 100 centralised days together as a team. A large amount of that was at UCD. Our stock-standard training weekend of Friday evening session and then two on Saturday and two on Sunday from May to the end of August is all there.”
Included in that support will be President Michael D Higgins who will attend the finals on March 22 at 5pm in the National Hockey Stadium.
The women’s national squad were privileged to have met President Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin for International Women’s Day and are delighted that President Higgins has accepted their invitation.
Ali Meeke, meanwhile, won her battle for fitness to get the nod in the panel ahead of Yvonne O’Byrne, completing the panel though Smith would have been content enough with either selection.
“Ali is a very composed player, very good on the ball. It was a bad break in her hand; there was some significant damage. We gave her the opportunity to heal so that she can play well for us in World League 2.
“Yvonne did well toward the end of 2014 in a new position, playing her in central defence. As a defensive midfielder, it allowed her to use her tackling skills and her physical ability. She played really well in Belgium when we won the series there.”
Looking at the potential opposition, Smith said he was impressed with Canada on their recent six-game tour to New Zealand, suggesting they had improved a lot from the team Ireland beat 5-0 last summer.
“I was able to get a feel for how they were going and I thought they were doing better than what they did in 2014 so they will be a tough one to crack.
“These are going to be very competitive games and we know Canada are going to be tough, hard-nosed and a difficult opponent so we need to be ready for them.”As for Ukraine and Turkey: “It’s difficult to get coverage of them so it is difficult ot know them. What we would be comfortable with is that we have a good amount of experience against Russian-style opponents and the Ukraine will play in a style similar to Belarus who we have played against recently.
“What we will focus on against Ukraine in the opening match is that we are playing well and we can cause them problems through our play.”
They hit the ground running for that at 2.45pm in Belfield.
Ahead of the tournament, Irish skipper Megan Frazer was similarly effusive about the importance of home support and knowing the surroundings at Belfield.
Speaking ahead of the tournament, she said: “Having a home advantage is quite a big deal for us and we want to take full advantage of it. We’re hoping to get a great crowd out and drum up support, make some noise and make it uncomfortable for our opposition.
“As well, it’s our home pitch which we train on, night in, night out. We know it like the back of our hand and we want to make best use of it.
“You may not think there is much difference in pitches but if you ask a player, there is a wide variety which see the ball play that bit differently.”
The last year has been especially intense for the Irish women with 41 international matches and 100 training days. Frazer explains the commitment required and how each mini-series has been geared toward succeeding at this event and beyond.
“Our whole training is set up to have us ready for this type of environment where we play back-to-back and then a rest day and so on. To have our bodies prepared for that is done months, if not years in advance, in the gym.
“In our run-in, we rest at the right times to maintain that and promote our performance for tournament play. Definitely, we try and replicate the intensity in our sessions and all that gets us ready for the matches.”
How this affects a work-life balance is one thing all the players have to cope with but Frazer says that the sacrifices made will ultimately lead to rewards.
“I am going to lie and say it is easy. There’s a lot of planning and preparation that goes into it. I’m studying so I need to be prepared toward deadlines and work around them.
“To train at such a high intensity when girls are working nine to five in a professional sporting environment; when you think we are going to try and compete against teams who are fully professional, who can go home and rest and sleep, while ours come in at 6am for gym sessions before work.
“The players do their best to do it all – the work rate is unbelievable, to get their performance up to play for the Irish team. It is so committed. Everyone makes sacrifices to do it because qualifying for the Olympics is what we want.
“There’s no way around it. If you don’t put the practice and preparation in, you are not going to perform on a level required. It goes without question that the demands are met by the players.“Sacrifices are made and we do it because we know we have so much potential and it’s not something anyone is going to let slip by.”
World League round two squad (March 14-22, Dublin): Emma Gray (Hermes), Ayeisha McFerran (Pegasus), Naomi Carroll (Catholic Institute), Lizzie Colvin (Loreto), Aine Connery (Hermes), Nicci Daly (Loreto), Kate Dillon (Railway Union), Nikki Evans (UCD), Megan Frazer (Captain, Ulster Elks), Shirley McCay (Ulster Elks), Hannah Matthews (Loreto), Katie Mullan (UCD), Anna O’Flanagan (UCD), Gill Pinder (UCD), Cliodhna Sargent (vice-captain, Cork Harlequins), Emma Smyth (Railway Union), Chloe Watkins (UCD), Ali Meeke (Loreto)
Hockey World League Round Two (all at Belfield)
Saturday, March 14
Pool A: Ireland v Ukraine, 2.45pm; Canada v Turkey, 5pm
Pool B: Belarus v Austria, 10.15am; Chile v Lithuania, 12.30pm
Sunday, March 15
Pool A: Austria v Lithuania, 10.45am; Chile v Belarus, 1pm
Pool B: Canada v Ireland, 3.15pm; Ukraine v Turkey, 5.30pm
Tuesday, March 17
Pool A: Belarus v Lithuania, 10.15am; Austria v Chile, 12.30pm
Pool B: Ireland v Turkey, 2.45pm; Ukraine v Canada, 5pm
Thursday, March 19: quarter-finals
Saturday, March 21: semi-finals; classification matches
Sunday, March 22: Final, 5pm; bronze medal match, 2.30pm; classification matches