Zara Malseed is taking “everything as a win” following her hugely impressive first international trip with the Irish senior women’s panel.
The Ulster woman netted three times in three appearances against Spain in Murcia last week despite breaking her thumb in the second game, continuing her incredible rise from obscurity to genuine contention for an Olympic spot.
“To even be where I am now, I am just enjoying every minute,” she told the Hook. “I will try my best to get my chance to play any games in a competitive situation and hopefully take that opportunity but anything is a win at this stage.”
An Irish Under-18 international six years ago, her move to Edinburgh for university was far from an instant success as she found herself dropped to the second team in her second year.
It is why she considered international hopes “were a dream I thought were dead a long time ago” before a remarkable rise. It started in Scotland with a first team recall leading to captaincy and then a domestic club treble.
Since returning to Ireland, she netted over a goal a game for her original club, Ards, who have the added benefit of Irish assistant coach Gareth Grundie in their setup, witnessing her exploits first-hand despite playing outside the top tier EY Hockey League.
That got her foot in the door last February with an invite for trials but last March’s abrupt hiatus came at the right time to allow her to focus on building the physical side.
“I had been out of international hockey so long. It is now such a completely different experience for the body; lockdown suited me because it gave me the chance to get the running shoes on and focus completely on that to get more opportunities when we finally got back on the pitch.
“The intensity is so completely different and what I have been working towards since I got brought in because that is the way we are trying to play hockey. It was so good to put it into practice.”
A natural goalscorer, the trio of goals was a welcome boost but she took almost more pleasure from a delightful cut-inside to wrong-foot a marker before setting up a Deirdre Duke goal on Sunday.
And it provided Irish coach Sean Dancer with extra justification for her inclusion in Ireland’s carded panel of 23 from which the 16 to go to Tokyo will be selected.
“The first game was very nerve-wracking but then I settled into it,” Malseed continued. “I made it a focus to try not to think about scoring goals – that’s kind of when it doesn’t happen. It is quite relaxing when you get stats like that. I was focusing on other things like my pressing which are important to get right because this was also the team’s first proper test of structural game play.
“But to just even be where I am now, I am just enjoying every minute. I will try my best to get my chance to play any games in a competitive situation and hopefully take that opportunity but anything is a win at this stage.”
For Dancer, meanwhile, he said it was a hugely productive first series in almost 12 months, winning two, drawing twice and losing once against the world number seven side in uncapped encounters.
“You can train all you want, but nothing beats playing International hockey again,” he said. “Not just for the competition, but also the mindset of the group. It has been a tough year for everyone, everywhere and we are very lucky that we are able to continue some quality development towards our Tokyo goals.
“We travelled with our full current squad, providing all players the opportunity to get some game time again. Even though our performances were not consistent, we did shows periods of high-quality play, including scoring field goals in every game.”
Hockey Ireland Performance Director Adam Grainger added: “A huge amount of planning and effort went into making sure these matches could go ahead. Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland have been essential to the organisation of this trip.
“Each member of the team was tested prior to leaving for the camp, followed by an isolation period before travelling, and will face testing again on return to Ireland.
“It was great to see the team back on the pitch playing international hockey, there’s a great energy in the group. The whole squad have been meticulous in following the appropriate COVID protocols which has allowed us to do this successfully.”