Railway Union take to the Porto boards for the women’s EuroHockey Indoor Club Challenge I with a squad that could lay claim to being the most multi-talented Irish sporting line-up ever to come together.
Not only does the side have an aggregate total of well over 100 senior hockey medals between them.
They can also count in their number a ladies football All-Ireland winner, a national track cycling champion, three international cricketers, nearly 200 Irish outdoor hockey caps and, in captain Holly Jenkinson, a netball and tag rugby international.
“It’s just a group of very talented athletes, serious high achievers!” Jenkinson said ahead of the event which begins on Friday morning.
It will be their second European campaign at this level, the previous one ending in gold in Bratislava in 2011. Back then, Jenkinson joked their best hope of silverware was the Fair Play Trophy, but improving performances and some serious group stage fortune put them in the frame to win the title for real.
It was a memorable trip, a first for all concerned with a healthy set of yellow-wig wearing fans in tow. Indeed, Railway’s traditional colour scheme caused them a few problems as a social night out in their tracksuits to a local ice hockey match drew the vocal ire of the HC Slovan fans when they took up seats in the home section.
“We got an awful lot of abuse because we happened to be wearing the colours of the away team. It took some Kate McKenna-led convincing to calm things down; we had to learn the home team’s songs and chants. They weren’t too happy us sitting in there!”
In addition to Jenkinson and McKenna, the likes of Cecelia and Isobel Joyce, Kate Dillon, Orla Fox and Hannah de Burgh Whyte are still going strong from that vintage while Emma Smyth now offers her intricate skill-set to the mix.
“I don’t know whether I should be proud or embarrassed but our average age is 31,” Jenkinson says of the experience in the panel. “We have been playing together as an indoor team consistently for a long time but also on the outdoor stage [for over a decade].
“Playing with the same group of really good friends outside of hockey as well is one of the main reasons we keep going.”
They start this week’s campaign on Friday morning against Swedish side Partille (12pm) before facing Georgia’s Ukimerioni Kutaisi (5.30pm).
Saturday morning begins with a tie against host club Grupo Desportivo do Viso before the event splits into top four and bottom four, promotion and relegation pools.
It follows a strong season domestically for Railway, retaining the National Indoor Trophy, scoring 42 goals and letting in just three.
“Going in, we have no real idea what to expect. In 2011, the standard was very varied and the Slovakian side [KPH Raca] were probably better than us but we got favours from others which got us into the semi-finals!
“Now, the standard seems to have improved even if it still the C division. In Ireland, there are now lots more people playing indoors and a lot more actually getting good at it with the Under-14 competitions, the Pro Series Indoor and the international setup.
“There was six or seven of us who were part of that training panel so we got lots of extra sessions under our belt with Dave Passmore.
“As individual players, we learned more about the game, different strategies and can bring that now to club level – a lot of things from our warm-up to our formations and strategies are similar to the Irish squad.”
To that end, Irish manager Gareth Myburgh has been co-opted to coach the side in Portugal and ambitions are far less modest than 2011.
“Because of the unpredictable nature, we have smaller, mini-goals for each game and re-evaluate each time but overall, we definitely are setting our sights high to look for gold and promotion.
“My Whatsapp has been blowing up all week, everyone counting down the days to go. As a sport, it’s on the rise in terms of numbers playing and the demographics with the international setup.
“We are hoping to be part of that rise, representing Ireland and Railway well. Whatever the results are, we hope we do everyone proud. We know it takes an army of people to get us to a competition like this so we are very grateful for everyone who has been involved.”
Railway Union squad for EuroHockey Indoor Club Challenge I: Carolyn Crampton (GK), Riona Norton (GK), Orla Fox, Jenny Long, Holly Jenkinson, Isobel Joyce, Hannah de Burgh Whyte, Emma Smyth, Cecelia Joyce, Kate Dillon, Kate McKenna, Lily Lloyd
Non-travelling reserves: Lisa McCarthy, Rhiannon Evans
Coach: Gareth Myburgh
Manager: Helen Johnston
Physio: Amy Phelan
Women’s EuroHockey Indoor Challenge I (all in Porto, Portugal)
Friday: Pool A: Railway Union v Partille (SWE), 12pm; Railway Union v Kutaisi (GEO), 5.30pm
Saturday, Pool A: Railway Union v Grupo Desportivo do Viso (POR), 12.45pm; classification matches to be determined
Sunday: classification matches
All matches will be live-streamed on EHTV: www.eurohockeytv.org/en-int/playerpage/