Selection set to be toughest yet with only 16 spots for Tokyo

Anna O’Flanagan is anticipating the most “cut-throat” selection processes as Olympic year begins in earnest this Sunday for Tokyo with their first match of their a warm-weather training camp in South Africa.

They deliberately travel with a smaller squad than usual for this kind of trip with just 20 players, 17 outfielders and three goalkeepers, due to July’s tournament regulations.

All other international fixtures allow squads of 18 but the Olympics limits countries to just 16. 

It means the squad know, at the very least, two of November’s qualifier heroes will be cut from the panel, making for a really tough selection process.

“It’s the hardest we will ever face,” O’Flanagan said. “It’s what we have been building for. Other countries qualify every four years but there’s a lot of us for whom we have been working for this for 10 years or more. 

“We know there will be big names who miss out and that will be difficult. With two less places, there’s massive competition.”

It is something coach Sean Dancer addressed last weekend at the first major training camp of 2020, emphasising the importance of each member of the 35-player panel buying into the team culture.

While temperatures drop and the rain has lashed, they have all been raising the temperature for what is expected to be one of the hottest Games on record.

Anna O’Flanagan. Picture: Deryck Vincent

That has meant several heat chamber sessions, hitting the treadmill or exercise bike for 60-minute stints with the dial turned up to 38 degrees.

“It is a shock when it is three degrees outside and lashing and you have just run from your car! The conditions are extreme and difficult. At first, I definitely struggled but I am starting to acclimitise and it got easier as time went on which is the aim.

“We will continue to do them over the course of the year. We initially did them for 60 full minutes but, in a match, you would have times in the shade so we are doing more than we would actually be exposed to in a match.”

The trip to Stellenbosch will also help. Thursday hit 36 degrees and more of the same is anticipated for some of their six-game series which starts on Sunday with a match against the South African hosts (2.30pm, Irish time).

Further games will be played against the Netherlands Under-21s and Germany. The schedule is designed to match the Olympic tournament where Ireland could play up to eight times in 14 days should they go all the way to the final.

“The big thing is we are hoping the Games will be eight matches in 14 days for us. It is such a high load for only 16 players, 15 outfielders. What has been set out for us in our plans is trying to replicate that.

“In South Africa, we only have 17 outfielders – at present, it’s 35 degrees and we will play six or seven games in a similar timeframe. It’s always about replicating Tokyo so we have done it before. Everything we do is aimed completely at that.

The travelling party features youngsters Ellen Curran, Hannah McLoughlin and Sarah Torrans who have a chance to stake a claim in the central panel while experienced performers like Nicci Daly, Zoe Wilson and Megan Frazer are not involved this time.

Gillian Pinder was not initially due to travel but has come in in place of Beth Barr who picked up an injury.

Sunday, January 19: Ireland v South Africa, 4.30pm

Tuesday, January 21: Ireland v Netherlands Under-21, 7pm

Saturday, January 25: Ireland v Germany, 3pm

Sunday, January 26: Ireland v South Africa

Tuesday, January 28: Ireland v South Africa, 7pm

Wednesday, January 29: Ireland v Germany, 7pm

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