Graham Shaw’s Irish women’s team jetted out to Johannesburg last Thursday evening in confident mood but wary not to get “carried away” by recent results in the final countdown for the World League Semi-Finals.
Wins over top ten ranked Germany and Korea in Berlin showed their growing belief that they can push toward a first World Cup appearance since 2002.
Next Saturday, they will meet Japan in their opening game in the first of their group games – the others are against England, Poland and Germany – with just one of the five sides getting eliminated after the group stage.
After that, the competition enters knock-out mode with quarter-finals and classification matches to follow. The top five sides will formally earn a place at the 2018 World Cup though sixth and seventh are more than likely to also suffice depending on who wins the continental championships.
Speaking ahead of the side’s departure, Shaw said that preparation on the pitch has “been ideal” in terms of combating the different styles they will come up against with Asian and European opponents on the menu.
“You don’t want to look too much into the results pre-tournament but we certainly grew as a group and it was a good team-building week away with positive results building confidence.
“It’s the performance and the process we are more interested in. That seems to be in a good place right now. Beating teams in the top 10 in the world gives you that belief that, on any given day, if we perform to our best, we feel we can be a real threat to any team in the world right now.”
The green army have continued their upward surge despite enduring the ongoing unavailability of captain Megan Frazer due to knee cruciate ligament problems. Cliodhna Sargent, Naomi Carroll and Rebecca Barry added to the unavailable list since January with only Deirdre Duke on the credit side following her shoulder injury.
“The aim in 2015 after missing out on Olympic qualification was to rebuild the squad so we’re not relying on 18 or 19 players. Ideally, we wanted a squad of up to 28 we feel can play at world level competitions.
“It’s obviously disappointing not to pick from a full panel, we’ve shown the depth in our squad to select an 18 that shows how much we have grown as a group. Yes, we can take players of that calibre out of it and still produce a strong squad and feel confident of qualifying.”
It has meant a new captain with Katie Mullan wearing the armband for this tournament. Her winning goals against Korea and Germany show she is relishing the role, especially at the head of the attack.
“We’ve looked at Katie in midfield as well, both in defensive and attacking roles there, but we feel she brings a real level of aggression to the forward line. It sets the tone for us from the front.
“We like to press aggressively and quite high up the pitch. She’s the ideal person to do it. She’s played in many different lines and her defensive side of the game is normal to her. And she knows where the goal is so, for the immediate future, you will see her in the forward line.”
In Malaysia, the armband was passed between four players. Mullan alone will wear in South Africa but Shaw says that does not mean she will be flying solo in the leadership stakes with a group of six players sharing responsibility.
“You don’t need an armband to have a voice in our team. We expect everyone to express their feelings throughout the group; that’s how we grow and move on. While it’s a title and an armband to be worn, its not to say other people wouldn’t share the leadership roles.”
The injuries have also opened the door for Sinead Loughran to make a world ranking tournament debut. The 26-year-old former Mount Anville student is something of a late bloomer, making her first inroads into the national panel in 2016 with last minute call-up for the Hawkes Bay Cup.
It followed four years in the US, reaching the final four of the NCAA championship with UNC Tar Heels, including three defeats in the final.
Shaw says her “physical ability” gives the side a huge asset: “She really asks questions of opponents by her physical effort around the pitch, both from a defensive point of view and also on the counter-attack.
“She had the highest of the fitness scores and her style suits the international game perfectly. She presses aggressively and you wouldn’t want to mark her man-on-man because of the ground she covers.”
The coach adds that Loughran’s spell before Christmas in Munich playing in the Bundesliga gave her an extra impetus.
“Moving across for Germany for that three months really taught her about her game and maybe a little about herself as a person. She came home, trained really well with the group and fully deserved her spot.
“For players like Sinead, when they come in [to the Irish panel] a bit older – not at 18 or 19 – it can take a bit of time to adjust and see where your style fits in.
“It’s taken her a little bit of time; she got a taste of it [in 2016]. I think she now knows where her strengths lie within the international game and she’s trying to apply them.”
In the last World League Semi-Final in 2015, Ireland came within a whisker of a ticket to Rio but were left agonisingly short of seeing off China in a crucial quarter-final, the width of a post in the shoot-out ending their Olympic hopes.
That tournament and the subsequent debrief have given Shaw and his team some crucial lessons about how to manage the highs and lows of the event.
The format this time around allows for more rest days – because it runs concurrently with the men’s event – and more direct planning for each opponent.
“There’s a lot more rest time which gives a bit more time to rest, recover and refocus on each game. It’s a different environment to playing two days in a row which limits preparation time.
“This gives more time to debrief and prepare for the next opposition. If we can perform in each game, we can get a result against anybody.”
** All matches will be broadcast on BT Sport; you can see the exact channels here: http://sport.bt.com/tv-guide-01363810618853
** In the lead-up to the World League semi-final, we will have interviews with Roisin Upton, Katie Mullan, Conor Harte and Craig Fulton on The Hook.
Ireland squad for Hockey World League semi-final (Johannesburg, July 8-23): G O’Flanagan (Railway Union), H Matthews (Loreto), Z Wilson (Harvestehuder THC), S McCay (Ulster Elks), L Colvin (Loreto), L Tice (UCD), C Watkins (Hermes-Monkstown), K Mullan (UCD), G Pinder (UCD), A O’Flanagan (Hermes-Monkstown), S Loughran (Hermes-Monkstown), N Evans (Hermes-Monkstown), N Daly (Muckross), D Duke (UCD), E Beatty (KHC Dragons), R Upton (Cork Harlequins), Y O’Byrne (Cork Harlequins), A McFerran (University of Louisville)
Hockey World League
Pool A: England, Germany, Japan, Ireland, Poland
Pool B: Argentina, USA, South Africa, India, Chile
Schedule (times local)
July 8: Ireland v Japan, 12pm
July 10: Ireland v Germany, 2pm
July 12: Ireland v Poland, 2pm
July 16: Ireland v England, 2pm
July 18-23: Classification matches