Following almost 18-months away from world ranking tournaments, Graham Shaw’s Irish women’s team have little time to wait in 2017 to finally get formally on the trail for a World Cup spot.
Indeed, the coach has been trusting his charges to take it easy on the ham and turkey over the Christmas period with a January 2 flight out to Malaysia for World League Round 2 on the agenda.
The tournament gets under way on January 14, making it a tricky one to prepare for with scant other international teams in full flow to play challenge matches against, as the 2018 World Cup bid comes into focus.
“In an ideal world, this tournament would have been at the end of January and we could have gone somewhere early in January,” he told The Hook. “When the tournament is at this time, it’s incredibly difficult for European teams to prepare for it with the difference in time and weather, humidity. We have got seven days to sharpen ourselves up pre-tournament. It’s certainly not ideal.”
As such, Shaw has put the panel through an intense physical block in December with two regional sessions in the days leading up to Christmas and another pair on the 29th and 30th.
And he is confident his side have put in the work during this period: “The girls are quite a self-driven squad. With nutrition and the requirements of being an elite athlete, the girls are well aware of what it takes when it comes to over-indulgence!”
It follows a 2016 which saw Ireland play a lot of challenge matches in which Shaw was able to widen his panel significantly and develop a number of new faces.
“We started off in Valencia with a warm-weather camp in January. I think that was an eye-opener for a few people because I didn’t think we were in the best of shape. We didn’t perform as well as we could have.
“After 2015, there was a difficult period of four or five months after not qualifying for Rio so maybe some of it was to be expected.
“Going to Hawkes Bay [in April] refocused the squad and gave them a goal for 2016. It was a really good move and then performing to the level that we did was very satisfactory, putting in some very good performances and really good results. That was the highlight of the year.
“After that, our budget was cut but we picked up fixtures here and there along with the Four Nations in August. But Hawkes Bay was the one where we got a real feeling of where we sat in the world.”
Among those to stand out were the likes of Lena Tice – who only completed her Leaving Cert in the summer – and Zoe Wilson following a stint in the US with Syracuse.
“When you look at the squad from Valencia [at the Olympic qualifier] in 2015, we only had maybe 20 players left with retirements and so on.
“We feel now we are stronger across the board and across different lines. That’s been a real plus. The introduction of those younger players of that quality has been brilliant and we are excited about what they can do in the future.”
Another addition who will make her ranking tournament debut in January is Limerick’s Roisin Upton following two NCAA titles with the Uconn Huskies. Her inclusion gives Ireland more options in midfield and defence.
“Roisin is a player I would have seen coming up through the Under-21s and she definitely stood out. She was always in the back of my mind as one to watch. We had to wait until she finished in the states.
“She brings a level of composure and calmness on the ball and a tenacity and aggression off the ball. We’re looking at Chloe Watkins and Katie Mullan going further up the pitch and having her in that holding position allows that.”
She is also a player who can potentially replace Megan Frazer while she recovers from her cruciate knee ligament injury.
“Losing Megan is incredibly disappointing but players like Zoe Wilson, Roisin Upton and Lena Tice are able to do that role for us. It maybe, down the road, allow us to use Megan further up the field.”
In Malaysia, there will be further tournament debutants in the form of Rebecca Barry and Clodagh Cassin. They will play pre-tournament friendlies against the host nation and then Italy on January 11 before the final lead-in to the formal ties.
Ireland will be the second highest ranked side at 16th in the world and are in a four-team group with the hosts (ranked 21), Kazakhstan (33) and Hong Kong (37). Top seeds Italy (15) are joined by Thailand, Wales and Singapore, ranked 15, 31, 32 and 43 respectively.
On paper, there looks to be a clear divide between the fancied sides and the also-rans. As such, with the quarter-final format again in place, winning top spot in the group is a key target to avoid the other big gun, Italy, for as long as possible with considerably easier ties on offer.
“You have to look to top the group ahead of Malaysia and then expect Italy and Wales in the other group. We go over there to win every game.
“We are all looking to play fourth in the other group which should be a comfortable quarer-final. We want to put ourselves in the best position possible; that’s probably going to require beating Malaysia in our second game and that’s what we are preparing for.”