Ireland’s men are on the Road to Rio 2016 as they recieved the favour they required from the other side of the world to finally have their ticket stamped after a three month wait. It means that an Irish team will play in the Olympics for the first time since 1908.
Australia beat New Zealand 3-2 in Stratford in the Oceania Cup final, ending a nerve-shredding interim period since July’s heroics in World League 3.
During the summer in Antwerp, Ireland beat higher-ranked Malaysia and Pakistan to finish fifth overall in that tournament.
It meant they missed out on direct qualification but did place them third on a waiting list for Olympic qualifying berths. These spots were dependent on the outcome of the five continental championships which all carry an Olympic spot for the winners.
Where continental champions were the same as already qualified sides, the next allocation for Rio came from the World League list.
Favourable results in Europe and Pan-America moved them within touching distance of the Games. And they got over the line at 4.20am on Sunday morning when Australia secured their victory, watched on in the BBC offices in Belfast by the Irish squad.
Nerves were settled early on when the Kookaburras got off to a dream start with two goals in the first six minutes, Glenn Turner and Jamie Dwyer doing the damage.
James Coughlan got one back for New Zealand before Trent Mitton gave Australia a 3-1 cushion going into the final quarter.
Kane Russell, however, set up a nervy closing phase with the second Blacksticks goal but Australia kept out a number of waves of attack to secure their win and Ireland’s Olympic spot.
It caps a remarkable year for the Irish men’s team, one which brought a first ever European Championship bronze medal in August. Across all tournaments, they outdid five higher ranked sides and now have a clear run to plot breaking into the world’s top ten.
It is some effort for a side currently run on a shoestring by comparison to rival nations. Indeed, of the sides they have beaten in 2015, England, Pakistan and Malaysia are all in full-time funded programmes while Belgium – who Ireland shaded in the Euros group stage – have a professional league to bolster their squad.
Ireland’s players, for the most part, attempt to marry elite sport with work and study commitments with the likes of Paul Gleghorne among a number to take unpaid leave during the year to aid the cause.
In addition, four players who came through the Irish system and played for the national side have made the switch to Great Britain to pursue Olympic hopes, moves that have robbed the side of their biggest talents.
But coach Craig Fulton – whose nickname, Ned, stands for “never ending dream” – always had faith that the side could deliver a side to the biggest stage in hockey in spite of the limitations.
Speaking back in August about his side, he simply stated: “When you have belief and commitment in the group, you can do amazing things.”