Graham Shaw says some of the sacrifices made by the Irish women’s squad this summer can see them reach new heights and qualify for a first major world level tournament since the 2002 World Cup.
The side flew out to Spooky Nook in Pennsylvania, USA this afternoon for a nine-day training camp which includes a match against the American development side before playing three test matches against the world number six side.
It is one of the preparation phases ahead of priority number one – the World League semi-finals in July in South Africa – where World Cup qualification will be determined.
— Ire Women's Hockey (@IreWomenHockey) May 19, 2017
Beyond that, Ireland will return to the top tier of European hockey in August in Amsterdam and Shaw says that the mindset is perfect to give both events their best shot.
“They are incredibly dedicated and driven women,” Shaw told Dublin City FM’s Declan Hughes. “We cannot thank them enough for the commitment they give of themselves and to their team.
“It’s a fantastic group for an incredibly busy summer – a lot of them have gone full time and won’t be working which is fantastic to solely [for the coaching staff] to have their minds on hockey.”
Preparations have stepped up markedly since the end of the club season. For example, last Friday saw the panel undergo physical testing at the Institute of Sport before training on the Saturday morning and then playing Hermes-Monkstown in the afternoon, aiding their European club plans.
Sunday saw another double session while a regular week will also include three sessions on the pitch, two gym sessions and two running sessions.
“It’s a high load. It’s about sharpening up in certain areas and shifting the mindset back into international hockey. And, finally, it's about spending time together. The more time you spend in this environment, the more you get those connections and understanding of each other and so the better you play.
“We try and get as much contact time between now and South Africa in the squad so there’s no ambiguity in how we set up, how we press, how we attack, how we defend; clarifying what we do to get on the same page.”
Shaw feels the US trip is perfect for building that culture and a good test of whether his side can hit the ground running.
“Spooky Nook is an incredible place, a real high performance feel to it and it will be invaluable for us to be there for nine days. We will be able to sharpen up as much as we possibly can and spending some quality time together.
“You usually learn as you go along in these test series but we want to start at the same [high] level that we finish at, not just build game by game. Try start at a level that is high enough for international hockey.
“First and foremost, we will concentrate on the development game to get up to speed as quick as possible and get the flight out of our legs, then we look to win the series.”
His panel features a large portion of players who were involved in the EY Hockey League playoffs with UCD, Hermes-Monkstown, Loreto and Cork Harlequins accounting for 15 of the 21 players travelling.
Shaw adds that this is indicative of the high level his players are currently at with their club sides.
“It’s a thing we talk about in our team culture. When we represent our clubs, we wear that Irish jersey underneath our club jersey.
“When people turn up to watch a club game, our Irish players are noticeable on the pitch through their level of skill, endeavour, conditioning, their attitude. A lot of our players have performed very well in the EYHL which is very pleasing for us.
“In the EYHL semi-finals, there was something like 16 players within the squad in there. It will tell you the players have performed very well this year and hopefully we are good shape for the qualifiers.”
And he hopes that form will carry through to the gruelling summer with all eyes on Johannesburg from July 8 to 23.
“It’s a tournament which runs over three weeks. When you take into account our pre-camp, it’s a period of nearly four weeks away. That’s our number one goal for 2017. We haven’t qualified since 2002 and its something we want to do and then we will look at the Euros after that.
“We’re very strong and do fancy our chances against any team in the world. In team sport, you need a bit of luck but we are confident if we stick to the way we play the game, the way we execute the key moments, we know we can be a real test for anyone.”
The format sees 10 teams split into two groups of five. The top four will all advance to the quarter-finals which acts as a direct qualifying game with the semi-finalists all assured of a ticket to London 2018.
The quarter-final losers will play off for fifth to eighth with many likely to also earn World Cup places based on how the continental championships pan out.
“We feel we have the team and the players to qualify and are really looking for it. We are in a tough group, in with the Olympic gold medalists GB, and the bronze medalists Germany – two European sides of a similar style. Japan will also present something different and Poland who were in the European A division in 2015.
“They are not to be under-estimated with a side growing year by year. If we perform, we will take points off any team. We are not targeting one game; we take every game as it comes.”