Irish coach Craig Fulton says that finally dealing with the “hurt” of missing on London 2012 played a pivotal part in building the mental resolve of his side to mount their first successful Olympic qualifying campaign.
He was speaking after Ireland were confirmed as the 11th side of 12 to qualify for Rio 2016 in the early hours of Sunday morning courtesy of Australia’s 3-2 victory over New Zealand in the Oceania Cup final.
The continental championship offered a ticket to Rio but the Kookaburras had already qualified for the Games via the World League earlier in 2015.
As such, Ireland were the next best placed team on the world list and took the place after a stellar year. It will be the first time Ireland has played in the Olympics since 1908.
Crucially, Ireland beat higher ranked Pakistan and Malaysia in Antwerp in July to finish fifth at World League Round 3, putting them on the shortlist for Olympic spots.
They followed up with a first ever bronze medal at the European Championships, outdoing the world number four and five sides Belgium and England, respectively, in the process.
In each case, they came through in narrow clinches with a series of single goal wins over more illustrious opponents. It was something borne from the 2012 experience when Ireland’s London hopes went up in smoke just seven seconds from the final whistle against Korea.
Coach Paul Revington stepped down soon after while his replacement Andrew Meredith only lasted 15 months in the post. Enter Craig Fulton in early 2014, a former Olympian with South Africa who also worked as assistant to Revington in the Irish setup.
In order to avoid a repeat of that loss to Korea, Fulton said it was important to push his players to relive that lowest of moments.
“I knew it hadn’t been debriefed; I knew I couldn’t go through another qualifying process without dealing with that whole situation,” he said.
“It’s about failing forward, taking the positives and we found two or three things that we had to change.
“When the guys looked at it again, they saw the lessons and not the disappointment and hurt. That’s important because the hurt doesn’t help us especially as it was always going to be something you never want to discuss or talk about.
“It was all around the mental approach, executing in the key moments. In terms of improving the mental side, you also need to be better conditioned. We took this to another level.”
The increased mental toughness saw Ireland cling on to a 1-0 win over Pakistan in the face of a late onslaught and they guts out similarly strong fightbacks against the Belgians and English.
Typifying this attitude, both Paul Gleghorne played through a tear to his shoulder muscles while Ronan Gormley fought through a wrist injury to produce immense performances.
Indeed, Fulton said Gormley took a lead role in the process.
“There was quite a lot of visualisation on it coming into World League 2 and prior to World League 3. Ronan [Gormley] took the lead on it and we made a place for it in our preparations.
“It was both team orientated and individually based so that each player had the tools to cope with whatever was coming at them; that you’re not being caught as much as you used to be in those same moments that can catch everyone.
“There’s no fool-proof and safe way to deal with it because we are all human. We’re not robots. Some will get it right; some will be more consistent with it. We really focussed on that; it was one of the phases that combined with our training and a lot of good things were done on that level.”
Despite the excellent results, Ireland still had to wait three months to finally get confirmation of their ticket to Rio as the other continental championships were contested. Sunday finally meant realisation of a moment that Fulton had visualised many times in his tenure.
“I have probably thought about this day a thousand times, maybe more, in the last 18 months. Everything since taking the job has been geared towards this moment, making history and qualifying.
“We have had good campaigns before, good teams and come as close as it gets but haven’t been able to get over the line. It was always about adding more detail and the next layer of whatever it was we needed to be better and to qualify.”
And now he is hoping to build momentum and support for the team. Key to this is getting more home fixtures against the world’s top sides in the next year to attract more supporters – and potentially a sponsor – from outside the current hockey public.
Reflecting on the qualification, he added: “I’m ecstatic and really proud but, at the same time, it hasn’t really sunk in. The enormity of it will build in the next eight or nine months, more people will find out what the team is about.”
Now, Fulton is hoping to build as extensive a plan as possible to give Ireland the best chance of pushing for the upper reaches of the competition.
“It will all be down to the funding that we get from our applications. We are starting a lot later than the other teams who have known since June or July that they are going to Rio and their programmes have been set.
“A few teams haven’t really shown an interest in playing us because we are not qualified. Now, I am sure we will get more responses. The programme will be geared around getting more time with the players.”
Indeed, 2015 has shown that more training sessions and increased games has been a crucial factor in improved performance.
“This year, we played 41 test matches and three warm-up games. It’s the most we have ever played in any Irish campaign and it was our most successful. We need to get guys out of work, we need real commitment from both the Irish Sports Council and the commercial sphere.
“We have a plan, an exciting one, but it needs to be funded so we get the players for the right amount of time to train and recover.”
Having a good number of games in front of the home public is vital.
“What needs to happen is also to get some of the games here in Ireland so we can do something with it. This is vital to get that sponsor.
“We’re not going to create a buzz at home unless we get those games. We need to be accessible to the public, get them to see everything about us.”