Irish skipper Katie Mullan says there are “definitely points to be had” from their Olympic group after they were confirmed last Saturday to play against the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, India and South Africa by the FIH.
As the draw is based on world rankings, the only doubt was over the inclusion of South Africa’s whose Olympic committee – SASCOC – had previously stated they would not be sending a side to Tokyo 2020.
Winning the African championship was enough for them to earn their Olympic invitation from the International Hockey Federation.
But a fourth placed finish at the FIH Series was below the threshold criteria set by SASCOC who previously withdrew both their men and women’s teams from the Rio Olympics in 2016 on the same basis.
This time, however, they have decided to make a U-turn and accept their ticket, primarily after serious pressure from South Africa’s gymnasts which forced the change. It makes Ireland’s shoot-out win over Canada earlier this month all the more significant.
Had the Green Army lost, they would have been the side to profit from a “lucky loser” spot until the SASCOC change of heart.
Mullan said it was something that her side was conscious of but know it was never something they could rely on.
“The week before, we did talk a little bit about permutations and heard about the South African things,” she told The Hook for an upcoming interview for the December edition of Hockey World News.
“But a lot of us are quite experienced now. It’s not the first Olympics where this has been a discussion; they had it for Rio and even before that. So we knew it was not something we could hold our breath over because these things change all the time. All we could control was our game and put everything to the side.
“The only matches going on that weekend for us were Ireland versus Canada Saturday and Ireland versus Canada, Sunday. That environment and mindset is what stood to us in London [in 2018], being in that wee bubble, being solely focused on what we had to do. That is a characteristic of our team.”
The other group features Argentina, Australia, Graham Shaw’s New Zealand, Spain, China and hosts Japan.
And so, while Ireland are in with all of the medalists from Rio, they can still look at the opposition with some degree of confidence with the top four side set to advance to the quarter-finals.
The South Africans are the lowest-ranked side at 16; had they not been there, hosts Japan – 14th – would have been in Ireland’s group.
"A lot of people didn’t see the pain we had to go through from that devastating defeat to where we are now, preparing for Tokyo 2020."@irishhockey star @Clowatkins talks about the 10-year journey to @Olympics qualification. @Tokyo2020 @20x20_iehttps://t.co/PJGDTMvEeU
— The Sports Chronicle (@SportsChronicle) November 28, 2019
The Green Army have never lost to India in a world ranking match, overcoming that challenge twice at the 2018 World Cup. They drew with Germany and pushed England – who make up the vast majority of the GB squad – all the way at this summer’s European Championships. As such, all will be viable targets for points.
And Mullan also says facing the Dutch is a double-positive.
“It’s good to be in the same group as Holland. Not only do you not meet them in a crossover but, also, playing against them is a big game which gets you playing at that pace, thinking as fast as you possibly can on the ball. In a tournament environment, it’s good to get games like that in the group stages.
“We’ve come close to England in a couple of tournaments recently; they definitely improved a lot for their qualifier, settling into the way of Mark Hager, and will be strong come the Olympics. They definitely do take us seriously and show us a level of respect.
“Similarly, Germany, we know them extremely well and played them a lot. They are progressing well but they have had a few battles against us in the last couple of years and will be well aware of us.
“There’s definitely points to be had in the group. You will have noticed when our girls have been interview in the past few weeks and before, we by no means don’t just want to qualify. We fully believe we can do something there.”
Initial preparations began this week with VO2 max testing for the squad. Sean Dancer’s side assembles for a warm-weather training camp in South Africa in January and a subsequent March trip to Malaysia for humidity-training.