Ireland’s women play their first test matches of World Cup year this week in Malaga on Tuesday, taking on Spain in the first of four games this week.
It marks the start of an intense build-up to London 2018 with the tournament getting underway on July 21 with seven series leading into the main event. The side travel to Spain with 29 players taking part from the wider panel of 35.
In March, Ireland travel to Glasgow to play two matches against Scotland and then move on a week later to play England, featuring a large number of Olympians, at Bisham Abbey. The final away trip is a series against world number six side Germany.
After that, it is all home games with a three-game series against Japan, starting with a game in Cork on July 4 and then two games in Dublin on July 6 and 7. A three-nation tournament follows from July 10-14 against Italy and Chile at a venue to be confirmed.
The final run-in comes while the Irish panel will go into a four-day a week phase together in camp from Thursday through to Sundays from mid-May.
The logistics of that mean that some players will have to manage their job situations. But Anna O’Flanagan, Chloe Watkins and Nikki Evans’ decisions to play hockey full-time this year and put work on hiatus mean that the profile of the panel as a whole is reasonably conducive to going into the intense programme.
“A few of our ‘workers’ went to play abroad which has helped the situation,” Shaw told The Hook. “The German league does finish in the first week of June and the Dutch league could finish in the first week of May but we are lucky we have a good few teachers in the squad.
“We don’t have a massive group working without those three. We have asked players to do a three-day week but it doesn’t allow for everyone so we have to work with individuals to get the most from them.
“Being able to get on the pitch four days a week with some double sessions, spending that time together, going through video, working on our culture, environment and behaviours as a group – making sure we get as tight-knit as a team as possible. It will be an invaluable six-week block from May into July.”
Already under their belt in 2018 is a weekend being putting through their paces by the Irish defence forces at the Curragh Camp, an invaluable experience for Shaw’s troops.
“Bringing in the full squad of 35, we spent that bit more time together, especially the younger players, to get everyone to know each other better.
“We also debriefed 2017 and took our learnings from that. The army training was about teamwork, decision making under pressure, problem-solving and also looking at leadership within the group under different circumstances. We felt there was a really good atmosphere in the group.”
As for what came from the debrief, Shaw was coy about the nitty-gritty but said there was plenty to learn from the year gone by. It was one where World Cup qualification was hard won but the proximity to the European Championships was a tough one to cope with emotionally with survival in the top tier only coming by the skin of their teeth.
“The intricate detail is private but we want to be more consistent in how we play and how we behave in tournaments regardless of what pressures come on and where we sit in the tournament.
“There were inconsistencies, particularly in the Euros, whether it is penalty corners or our general style of play. We all know that if you let your emotions get the better of you against quality opposition, you are going to get punished.”
For this week’s trip to Spain, Cliodhna Sargent and Megan Frazer are not yet included but they will be given time to prove their fitness after pregnancy and cruciate knee injury, respectively.
“For Cliodhna, it’s a question of whether she can get back to the physical place she was back in January 2017 in Malaysia. She is working really hard physically to see if she can get that back to playing international hockey and that’s her challenge.
“We will continue to monitor her to see how she improves but also minding her because it could be that bit more difficult. She does have that invaluable experience and is a good person around the group.
“Megan has had a tough long road with her knee and a few setbacks along the way. We would obviously have liked her back before now but she has definitely turned a corner in the past three or four months and progressed really well, running on the field with a lot of change of direction. It’s now about making a decision when she steps back on the field.
“We expect her back in some kind of hockey exercises by mid-February with Mannheimer. We are excited by the talent she has and will bring the team that bit of extra confidence.
“With Megan, I can see her being back fully playing in March but we are not going to rush it. We have had enough setbacks to not be silly about it now since she has been out 14 or 15 months out.”
A feature of the Spanish series is the number of Under-21 players involved with Ellen Curran, Sarah Torrans, Erin Getty and Emma Buckley all included from the Euros in Valencia.
“The reintroduction of the Under-21s has been very beneficial to the seniors. We had a look at the group and seen who can progress; some of them are now ready to make a real impact now and others are in for development for the future.
“We are always looking at Tokyo 2020 and beyond so that we consistently have that competition in the team. Sometimes it takes a few years with young players before they really find their feet but you sometimes get quite lucky with one or two who just slot in early in their hockey career and have an impact. We just need to give them time to grow.”
As for the year ahead, he is excited about the prospect of plotting a route through to the knock-out stages of the World Cup from a group with England, India and USA.
“This is why we want to coach at this level, why we want to be involved in the major competitions, challenge ourselves against the best teams in the world. We will do as much as we can to make sure this team is as prepared as we possibly can to enjoy the year.”
Ireland women’s panel (February 6-11, Benalmadena, Spain): Grace O’Flanagan (Railway Union), Emma Buckley (Cork Harlequins), Clodagh Cassin (UCD), Zoe Wilson (Belfast Harlequins), Erin Getty-(Queens), Yvonne O’Byrne (Cork Harlequins), Lena Tice (UCD), Chloe Watkins (HC Bloemendaal), Chloe Brown (Ards), Ali Meeke (Loreto), Lizzie Colvin (Belfast Harlequins), Anna O’Flanagan (HC Bloemendaal), Ellen Curran (UCD), Deirdre Duke (UCD), Nicola Evans (UHC Hamburg), Naomi Carroll (Cork Harlequins), Hannah Matthews (Loreto), Emma Russell (UCD), Sarah Torrans (Loreto), Rebecca Barry (Cork Harlequins), Emily Beatty (Pembroke), Aisling Naughton (Pembroke), Gill Pinder (Pembroke), Shirley McCay (Pegasus), Leah McGuire (UCD), Roisin Upton (Cork Harlequins), Katie Mullan (UCD), Nicci Daly (Loreto), Kate Lloyd (Railway Union)
Match schedule (all Irish time)
Tuesday, February 6: Ireland vs Spain, 3.30pm
Thursday, February 8: Ireland vs Spain, 12pm
Saturday, February 10: Ireland vs Spain, 12pm
Sunday, February 11: Ireland vs Spain, 11am