The shadow-boxing is over; let the games commence for Darren Smith and the Irish women as they bid for a first ever Olympic berth as they begin their World League 3 campaign in Valencia, Spain against South Africa on Wednesday afternoon (11.30am, Irish time).
The New Zealander confirmed in the lead-up to the tournament he would be stepping down to return to his native country with Graham Shaw coming in to replace him.
But he says he is fully focussed on the task ahead as Ireland aim to finish, at least, in the top five of the ten-team event to all but assure a ticket to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
To do that, his side must initially finish in the top four of their five-team group which also features Germany (world number seven), USA (five) and Uruguay (29). Ireland start the tournament as a whole as the seventh seeds but beat higher-ranked South Africa well in their most recent meeting in Glasgow last year.
After the group phase, the tournament will be broken off into quarter-finals on June 18th which act almost as direct qualifiers for the Olympics.
In preparation, Ireland have undergone one of the most intense schedules ever with over 50 international matches in the past 14 months. Results in their most recent tour to the US were middling in comparison to a stellar 2014 and early 2015 when World League 2 was annexed.
But Smith anticipates his side will leave every last ounce of perspiration and know-how on the pitch in their bid for a maiden Olympic berth.
“If we get a ticket to Rio, it will be because there are a squad of players who have given a massive commitment over several years to get there,” he said. “Am I confident? Yes I am but it will take us at our best, that little slice of luck and rising for the occasion especially when it matters.”
The squad, led by the inspirational Megan Frazer, draw largely from the panel that won World League 2 in Dublin. The one change sees Yvonne O’Byrne coming in for Naomi Carroll, on the face of it a swap that looks to suggest an extra defensive option but Smith told The Hook the decision arose more from form than squad balance.
“We looked to select the best players available and we felt that, on this occasion, Yvonne was needed for World League 3. The squad has five defenders, six midfielders and five strikers but also there is flexibility.”
They will be steeled by their north American tour which was used to mimic the intense conditions that World League 3 sets out for its teams.
“America was a very demanding tour with match, match, training, match, travel, match, match, recovery, match, match. Plenty of time together and game play. Post this, we have been careful in our loadings to allow the players to recover before a demanding WL3.
“There are four teams of different styles in our pool. In the end, we must focus on doing enough to firstly finish in the top 4 of the pool and second as high as we can. Being in the quarter-final gives us a chance.
“The tournament does allow for each team to have two opportunities to finish in the top 6. I think that we have some big challenges regardless of the format with some tough opposition.”
For now, the focus is on South Africa, a side Ireland know well from tournament play in recent years. There are lots of familiar faces including Nicolene Terblanche, Illse Davids, Shelley Russell – who played with Frazer and Nicci Daly at Holcombe – and Dirkie Chamberlain
The team will however be without its most capped player, Marsha Cox, who misses out on this event as she is currently unavailable for selection.
“South Africa is a strong team who have plenty of big tournament experience having qualified for The Hague, London, Rosario and Beijing. They are aggressive and play at pace. We will need to be well organised and cope with this approach so that the game is in our control. I’m expecting a tough and tight match.”
World League 3 Squad (Valencia, Spain from June 10th to 21st): Lizzie Colvin (Loreto), Aine Connery (Hermes), Nicci Daly (Loreto), Kate Dillon (Railway Union), Nikki Evans (UCD), Megan Frazer (captain, Ulster Elks), Emma Gray (GK, Hermes), Shirley McCay (Ulster Elks), Ayeisha McFerran (Pegasus), Hannah Matthews (Loreto), Ali Meeke (Loreto), Katie Mullan (UCD), Yvonne O’Byrne (Cork Harlequins), Anna O’Flanagan (UCD), Gill Pinder (UCD), Cliodhna Sargent (vice-captain, Cork Harlequins), Emma Smyth (Railway Union), Chloe Watkins (UCD)
Fixture schedule (all times Irish)
Wednesday: Ireland vs South Africa, 12pm
Thursday: Ireland vs Germany, 2pm
Saturday: Ireland vs Uruguay, 12pm
Tuesday, June 16: Ireland vs USA, 2pm
Thursday, June 18: quarter-finals
Friday, June 19-21: classification matches
** All the matches from the World League 3 in Valencia will be live streamed via the Star Sports website