When the glitchy live draw stream suddenly popped up with Ireland’s women facing Canada, it elicited staccato laughter and the odd cheer and hand-clap from the fully assembled Green Army squad.
It was a tacit admission this was one of the preferred options available from the draw. The north American side have very much been on the rise and caused Ireland no end of problems last summer in challenge matches in Dublin.
But facing the lowest ranked opponent and avoiding Korea and Belgium is probably a preferable outcome for the Irish women’s bid to qualify for a first-ever Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020.
The games will be played on November 2nd and 3rd with a Dublin-based venue the destination – whether it be UCD, Abbotstown or possibly on a roll-out pitch at Donnybrook Stadium.
“Mixed feelings, maybe it was nervous excitement but just glad to finally know,” was Shirley McCay’s assessment of the moment they finally found out their opponent. “It has been a long time coming so it is good to have that focus for the next eight weeks.
“I would have gone for Canada or USA. The others would have been a huge test but we are under no illusions. They are on the rise and have defied the odds in recent years.”
That includes a run to the final of both the Pan-American Games and the FIH Series in Valencia. Bizarrely, it follows a huge change in recent years which could have buried them.
With funding slashed, the squad relocated en masse to Europe to train together on a semi-pro basis without major backing and it has paid dividends.
Chloe Watkins added: “Canada have improved a lot over the last few years. They’ve got a good programme and been based more in Europe. We know they’re a good team and we’ve had a few mixed results, like before the World Cup last summer we lost to them and then we beat them a few times.”
Ireland’s programme, meanwhile, has gone the other way. The World Cup silver medal has seen the women’s team receive a big boost in government and corporate funding, changing their whole support structure.
“It’s had a massive impact but we won’t exactly know how much until those qualifiers about how important it has been,” McCay added.
“Softco and Park Developments have allowed us to go to a much more full-time programme. It allows much more contact time to train, push each other hard and have some flexibility with work.”
For training camps in Dublin, where the squad are based from Sunday mornings to Tuesday evenings, McCay can now avail of stays in the Sandymount Hotel.
“In the past, we have often had to home host. That puts pressure on the host but also you coming in, feeling like you are intruding, eating their food. The support has been invaluable. It is difficult to always be travelling away from home but having the hotel does allow us to be a little bit more relaxed before training.”
Her work with Ulster Hockey means she will be floating about at the interpros over the next few weeks but she added they are a workplace that can offer great support.
“They said ‘if we can’t support you as a hockey governing body, who can?’ In my role, hopefully, I can be seen as a role model and represent Ulster as much as I can.”
For Watkins, she works with Mazars on a part-time basis. The Park Developments fund is specifically ring-fenced for the likes of her who will have to take extra time off in October as extra contact hours come into play, helping to limit any shortfall in income.
“Park Developments coming on board has been a huge boost in combination with Softco. It has allowed us to train on a more full-time basis since July. We’re already seeing huge improvements as a team because it’s just that contact time we never had before.
“Now, we have the ability to do that and it’s all thanks to their support. That’s invaluable and certainly, over September/October, the programme we have in place will give us our best chance of qualifying.
“I’m going to take a month out from work completely and just have that in mind. The programme is pretty heavy, we’re training at a really high intensity and recovery is so important. That has to be our main focus.
“This will be my third attempt at an Olympics. Back in 2011, we were in a centralised programme but nothing to this level of professionalism. The training itself, we’ve had nothing of this kind of intensity.
“I know everyone’s bodies are in bits at the moment as we were just back yesterday. It’s certainly a new level that we’re playing to and that’s what we need as a group. Everything has been put in place and hopefully it’ll work.”
McCay’s Olympic pursuit goes back even further, back to Canada in 2008 when Ireland missed out on a final berth in the Olympic qualifiers at the hands of Italy.
And while it wasn’t Canada directly who blocked the path, there is still a little sense of “owing them one”.
“I didn’t realise the enormity of it. I was young and maybe a wee bit selfish. Now, I know just how much effort, commitment and sacrifice it takes to get glory in eight weeks time.
“I did wonder why there was such sheer disappointment, wondering why we hadn’t achieved our qualification for Beijing. I was young and naïve and didn’t realise the impact it would have. I am the only one surviving from then so it will only be me getting my own back!”
For Watkins, it is also about not resting on their laurels following last summer in London.
“We made history at the World Cup but the Olympics has been the one we’ve always chased. We’ve never qualified before so, first and foremost, it is our target and goal. It’s driving this group at the moment.
“I suppose every time we go out there we want to try and perform but we do know we have a special group of players and a great programme in place. The sky is the limit now and we’re really just got to go for this and get over the line.
“You do learn something different from each cycle. There have been some really big disappointments but we’ve grown as a group and I think we’ve got a really good mix of experience and youth at the moment.
“The energy and the ambition from some of the younger players, they’ve slotted in seamlessly. Some of us who have experience and have been disappointed before with Olympic qualifiers, know what to expect and what not to expect.
“The World Cup certainly has given the group a new sense of belief and confidence that we can get the result on the big stage. What we learned from our last experience was that you can push a team so far, and we trained so hard, but we didn’t get there.
“The reality is that you really have to push for it. You might think you’re in a good position but it’s a whole new level. It’s a really difficult process. We’ve turned that into motivation.
“People have been in the squad for 10 years. It’s something we’re all working towards and something we’ve always wanted to achieve. And this is our chance. When you’re with a group like this, you never know how many opportunities you’re going to get again so we have to make the most of them.”
Women’s full qualifiers draw
25/26 October: Australia – Russia, Perth
25/26 October: China – Belgium, Changzhou
25/26 October: Spain – Korea, Valencia
1/2 November: India – USA, Bhubaneswar
2/3 November: Germany – Italy, Mönchengladbach
2/3 November: Great Britain – Chile, London
2/3 November: Ireland – Canada, Dublin
Each qualifier consists of two back-to-back matches which will be played in the same venue. The match times will be confirmed at a later stage and updated on www.FIH.ch.
The winners of these FIH Hockey Olympic qualifiers will qualify for the 2020 Olympic hockey tournaments which will be staged in Japan’s capital city from 25 July to 7 August next year and involve 12 Men’s and 12 Women’s teams. The following teams are already qualified:
Argentina, Netherlands, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand.