The heroine of Johannesburg, Grace O’Flanagan, is set to don the number one goalkeeper smock for the Irish women’s hockey team at the European Championships which get under way next week in Amsterdam.
The Railway Union keeper crucially came off the bench to replace the sin-binned Ayeisha McFerran in their World League seventh place playoff 2-1 win against India last month.
With her first touch, O’Flanagan denied India a second goal from a penalty stroke with her very first touch of the tournament before keeping out a series of second half penalty corners, giving the green army a big boost in the World Cup qualification stakes.
For the Euros, McFerran is unavailable as she heads back to her base at the University of Louisville, meaning O’Flanagan gets the chance to be the number one for the first time at a major tournament.
Captain Katie Mullan has no doubt O’Flanagan – who will now be backed up by Clodagh Cassin – will make a key impact.
“Not only did she save a stroke with her first touch but she also brought a real element of calm and belief onto the pitch,” Mullan said of the Railway woman.
Mullan added that the Irish comeback against India, scoring twice in the last 12 minutes was borne out of numerous last-ditch winners in recent times that have given the side real belief in tough situations.
“I have no doubt that our many last minute comebacks over the past 18 months stood to us in that game but most important thing was that we stuck to the game plan and didn’t force the game.”
Cassin’s inclusion is one of two changes from the World League panel with Ali Meeke coming into the side in place of Lizzie Colvin – who scored the crucial winner against India – but, otherwise, the remaining 16 players are back once again in a settled looking side.
Ireland will contest a tricky group, facing the guts of the Great Britain’s Olympic gold medal winning side first on August 18th before meeting Scotland and then closing out the group against Germany.
Graham Shaw’s side will feel there is a little bit of unfinished business against the Germans, the Rio bronze medalists, whom they led with seven seconds to go before drawing 2-2 in Johannesburg.
Should they nick a win, it could put Ireland in line for a first ever shot at a medal with their best ever previous finish a fifth place, last achieved in the same stadium back in 2009.
For striker Nikki Evans, the German tie will be a first time coming up against some new team mates as she has been signed up by UHC Hamburg for the upcoming club season. It means she leaves for the continent along with fellow Hermes-Monkstown players Chloe Watkins and Anna O’Flanagan who are destined for the Dutch league with HC Bloemendaal.
Speaking about the tournament and squad, Shaw said: “We are very keen to improve upon our performances from South Africa and we are very excited about the challenges ahead.
“We are in a very difficult group and and we will prepare for each game accordingly. We must work hard as a group in our preparation and the detail going into each game. Any International tournament in Holland is always brilliantly run and we can’t wait to get over there and get started.”
Ireland women’s squad for EuroHockey Nations Championships (August 18th to 27th, Amsterdam): Grace O’Flanagan (Railway Union), Hannah Matthews (Loreto), Zoe Wilson (Harvestehuder THC), Shirley McCay (Ulster Elks), Ali Meeke (Loreto), Lena Tice (UCD), Chloe Watkins (Hermes-Monkstown), Katie Mullan (UCD), Gillian Pinder (UCD), Anna O’Flanagan (Hermes-Monkstown), Sinead Loughran (Hermes-Monkstown), Nikki Evans (Hermes-Monkstown), Nicci Daly (Muckross), Deirdre Duke (UCD), Emily Beatty (KHC Dragons), Roisin Upton (Cork Harlequins), Yvonne O’Byrne (Cork Harlequins), Clodagh Cassin (UCD)