Ireland get rare chance to face big name on home turf

After 13 years and 250 odd games in the interim, Shirley McCay says memories are “sketchy” enough of Great Britain’s last visit to Ireland.

For the record, GB won 3-0 at the Setanta Trophy in Belfield in 2008 en route to winning the short-lived competition.

It came at a time when the broadcaster – a forerunner to Eir Sport – was establishing itself as an outlet with a keen interest in hockey, also showing IHL finals weekends and Leinster schoolgirls finals live. 

It enabled some star power to visit with Germany and South Africa’s women along with GB, Canada and Pakistan’s men’s teams all competing for high quality four nations tournaments. 

In that context, it has been a rare thing since to have events in Ireland on live television outside of the 2012 men’s and 2020 women’s Olympic qualifiers, particularly for non-tournament games.  

So to have both BBC NI and RTE on board to broadcast this uncapped series represents quite a coup for Hockey Ireland to get these games at Queen’s.  

“Unless we are hosting a major tournament, we don’t tend to get those countries coming over to play us,” McCay said ahead of the games which take place on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday. 

“Having the reigning Olympic champions on home soil and not being able to get people out to support is sad but it is the reality. 

“It’s good to have them come over this side of the water!”  adding with tongue firmly-in-cheek: “It is nice to have them back. The fact they haven’t been over in 13 years perhaps says a lot about a lack of desire to want to play us considering we are just a 50-minute flight away!” 

McCay is keen to put one thing right on her personal record. 

“I don’t think we have beaten them in my time which has been a good few occasions [between GB and England], both in tournaments and friendlies so it would be a good time to get one over on them.  

“There’s a real buzz about the next few days and we will hopefully perform. We are grateful for BBC and RTE covering the games and hopefully it will get good coverage.” 

Of course, the bigger picture is the preparations for a hectic summer with June’s European Championships with the Olympic Games following soon after. Katie Mullan alluded to it in the series launch that the series acts as a re-introduction of the panel to the public after a low-key 2020 with the pandemic wiping the calendar. 

“To put it in perspective, everyone had their own worries so it wouldn’t really be appropriate to be in the public eye,” McCay said. “We have been out of the spotlight and that’s fine; we have been ticking away and that’s actually when we perform our best. Over the next few months, we want to make sure the hard work pays off so we actually go to Tokyo and perform. 

“It is hard to judge where we are but that’s the same for the other nations who are in the same boat. We are happy to create that really competitive environment at training so selection is as tough as it can be.” 

Shirley McCay at the Olympic qualifier in November 2019. Pic: Deryck Vincent

Winning the series in Spain in January was a good step forward, especially against an opponent able to avail of a full club programme.  

It did come with a big downside, though, with Zoe Wilson picking up an ACL injury which will almost certainly rule her out of the Olympics and McCay says the defender will be missed. 

“Devastating. It’s been difficult for the group. It’s a massive loss; we keep in regular contact and her surgery has been successful. Knowing Zoe, she is incredibly strong mentally and I have no doubt she will do everything she can to get back soon but we have lost a big part of our team.” 

It does mean opportunity knocks for someone to step up and nab a defensive spot and Sean Dancer has named the uncapped Sarah McAuley in the squad to play in Queen’s while UCC’s Caoimhe Perdue also travels.  

“The younger girls have done phenomenally. You can see how much they are developing and its hugely positive for the year that’s in it. We need as much competition as possible and Sarah is a fine example of that. Fantastic young player with a big future ahead of her.” 

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Where to watch  

BBC Sport NI 

BBC Sport NI will broadcast live coverage of all three games in the SoftCo series from Queen’s University playing fields on BBC iPlayer and on its website, bbc.co.uk/sportni. Nigel Ringland will present the coverage and will be joined on commentary by former Ireland captain Alex Speers.  

Ringland said of the series: “I can imagine there are a lot of hockey fans who would love to see Ireland play the Olympic Champions on home turf but with current restrictions, unfortunately that’s not possible.  

“But the good news is that we’ll have all the action on BBC iPlayer and on the website. Ireland women are in a really exciting place with Olympic qualification for the first time on the back of that memorable World Cup in 2018 while the postponement for a year of the Tokyo Games has given Great Britain a wonderful opportunity to defend their title this summer.” 

Fans can also watch Ringland’s epic documentary Live Like Legends on the iPlayer, charting the team’s journey to the 2018 World Cup Final and subsequent dramatic Olympic qualification. 

Saturday 13 March: 2pm. BBC Sport NI website, BBC iPlayer. 
Sunday 14 March: 5pm. BBC Sport NI website, BBC iPlayer. 
Tuesday 16 March: 3pm. BBC Sport NI website, BBC iPlayer. 

RTÉ Sport 

On RTE, the first and third encounters will be on RTÉ Player and the second game will be on RTÉ2 with coverage from 4.30pm on Sunday, March 14.  

Evanne Ní Chuillin will front Sunday’s coverage with commentary from George Hamilton with the former saying: “The World Cup matches in 2018 and the Olympic qualifiers in 2019 provided Irish sports fans with some of the most dramatic moments we’ve witnessed by Irish athletes on the world stage.  

“We can’t wait to follow the fortunes of Sean Dancer’s squad in Tokyo, and this series of matches against the Olympic champions will whet our appetite for the next exciting chapter for these phenomenal Irish sportswomen.” 

Saturday 13 March: 2.00pm Live on RTÉ Player (commentary: Ger Canning) 

Sunday 14 March: 4.30pm Live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player (presented by Evanne Ní Chuillin with Gillian Pinder and Cliodhna Sargent, commentary: George Hamilton and Sarah Scott) 

Tuesday 16 March: 3.00pm Live on RTÉ Player (commentary: Ger Canning) 

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