Roisin Upton is hoping to continue making up for lost time with the Irish women’s team as they look to land a 2018 World Cup spot over the course of the next two weeks.
The Limerick woman has taken something of a long road but, since December, has quickly become one of Graham Shaw’s key players. Indeed, it’s third time lucky after two false starts.
Her first call-up came in 2015 but a hip problem ruled her out of the summer’s action. A second call came in January 2016 for a trip to Spain but a scan for what she thought was an innocuous knock revealed a stress fracture, a protective boot and, eventually, double hip surgery.
Shaw, though, was persistent and wanted to get Upton involved having seen what she could do with the UConn Huskies, winning a pair of NCAA titles and being named an All-American twice.
Upton eventually made her international debut in December just a couple of days after playing her first match in 12 months, a club tie for Cork Harlequins that would make her eligible to play the second half of the season in Ireland.
She was still based in the US at the time, working to complete some final courses to complete her degree but was not allowed to line out for the Huskies during this period.
“Trying to recover from the extended downtime was a challenge. I wasn’t getting any meaningful game time in the states; I was trying to get my fitness back and I didn’t know how my hips would react to it all.
“What really took my by surprise was how mentally challenging this time was. It’s only a matter of putting in hours and pushing through the pain barriers to get your fitness back but it was the nagging questions; would I be the same player I was?
“Would I recover in time to get myself into the mix for the 2017 Irish programme? Where would I fit in with Quins, my new club?”
Shaw, though, saw the opportunity and threw her in at the deep end. He saw enough in the three-game series against Scotland to put her in for the World League Round 2 tournament in January in Malaysia.
She admits it was a surprise to be elevated so quickly this tie around.
“Graham showed a huge amount of understanding and patience. He put the target in front of me for Malaysia; I knew it was up to me to get as fit as possible to give myself the best chance.
— Ire Women's Hockey (@IreWomenHockey) June 29, 2017
“My training programme had me taking a gradual approach with the view to resuming my hockey in January with Quins. You can imagine my surprise when Graham touched base with me and asked me to go to Scotland.”
Now, she looks the heir apparent for Frazer’s libero role. Her close skills and eye for goal – demonstrated in a brilliant finish against China in June – are combined with sweeping passes. When deployed in defence, she picks off crucial tackles in a clinch.
“If there’s a green jersey at stake I’ll play anywhere I’m asked to! Traditionally I play a holding midfield role and look to break forward.
“With Cliodhna [Sargent] unavailable, Graham has found a role for me in central defence so I’m more than happy to develop my game in that position.”
It’s a big difference from the American system in which she spent four years which, in turn, is a world away from her school days.
“International hockey is a huge step up from club and college hockey. It is much quicker, and more skilful. During my time at Uconn, we did hours and hours of video analysis and that has helped me transition over to the international game as it gave me a broad understanding of many facets of the game.
“The NCAA attracts international students that would have played underage for their countries; Dutch, English, Argentinians, Germans etc. which has made the league very competitive. Every game you play, you’re playing against international students including the best of what the US had to offer.
“The US approach to sport was a huge surprise to me initially. I loved the intensity of the season playing 20-24 competitive games over three months while training together for 20hours per week.
“The Irish by contrast doesn’t have the budget the American system has to cater for this, but it has the players and coaching. I know Irish hockey would push on and punch way above our weight as we do across a broad range of sports if we had similar financial support.
“The professional approach to balancing hockey and academics instilled a huge sense of discipline. Having to perform at a high level both on the field and academically was a new challenge. There are no allowances made so time management was important just as it is now balancing international hockey, club hockey, work and college commitments.”
Now to South Africa and the chance of ending Ireland’s wait for a return to a World Cup, a first since 2002.
“We are also under no illusion as to what is facing us in South Africa but we are going down there focused and with real intent,” Upton says before looking at the group opponents.
We all know how the Germans grow in tournaments, the English team is practically the same squad that won gold last year in Rio; the Japanese have beaten top five opposition this year, and Poland will see us as a huge opportunity.
“But this is the bones of a team that missed out on Rio by the width of a post. It’s all to play for at this stage. If we bring our A game we’ll give a good account of ourselves.
“It’s a dream come true [to be part of it]. It doesn’t get much better than this. Hopefully, it leads to a World Cup and springboards us into an Olympic Games. This is what it’s all about.”
** All matches will be broadcast on BT Sport; you can see the exact channels here: http://sport.bt.com/tv-guide-01363810618853