Ten months on from the World Cup, 15 of Ireland’s silver medal winners finally get to show off their wares in front of an expectant home crowd, starting with a double-header this weekend. Tokyo 2020 is the endgame at the FIH Series Finals with this eight-team tournament a stepping stone to October’s Olympic qualifiers with a top-two finish in Banbridge guaranteeing an advance to that phase.
The Green Army face world number 22, Malaysia, today, and the Czech Republic (19th) on Sunday in the group stages. They will complete the round robin on Tuesday against Singapore (35th), gunning for top spot which would mean a direct route to the semi-finals — second or third earns a quarter-final.
On paper, it should be a handy route. Cumulatively, Ireland have won each of their last nine games against that trio of nations, scoring 34 and conceding just three. Even without last year’s silver medal showing, Ireland would go into this competition in an unfamiliar role as overwhelming favourites.
Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see how they cope with their new status and whether the euphoria that greeted last August’s fairytale translates into packed stands at the Co Down venue. The guts of 14,000 people took in their last competitive fixture. It would be reasonable to expect they will fill a stadium one fifth of that size come game time at 3pm today.
Key striker Anna O’Flanagan knows they are coming into a tournament above the radar for once.
“We’re in a different situation now,” she said. “There’s more of a target on our backs than previously and probably more pressure as well. It’s definitely the first time we’ve had to deal with that expectation. We need to just focus on our own performance, how we start matches, how we bring tempo to games, on how we can bring our style of hockey that we want to play.
For the most part, the same crew is still around. Sub goalkeeper Grace O’Flanagan stepped back after the World Cup with former Cork Harlequins woman Emma Buckley — after a brilliant season with Racing Club de Bruxelles — coming in.
Yvonne O’Byrne and Nikki Evans have been replaced for this competition by newcomers Bethany Barr and Sarah Hawkshaw — sister of Irish Under-20 rugby player David — set for debuts in a tournament of this stature. While it has been well beyond the players’ control, there has been a fair share of turbulence since London.
Calls for a new training centre and home pitch were acted upon, just not quickly enough for either Abbotstown or UCD to be built in time to host this event and so Banbridge hastily stepped into the breach.
Also, after a couple of cancelled training camps, Graham Shaw’s departure — along with technical coach Colin Stewart — in the spring to New Zealand left only a short window for a new coach. While Sean Dancer has been co-opted, the short run-in means Shaw’s former assistant Gareth Grundie will provide continuity to the coaching role before the Australian formally takes the reins.
Canada also pulled out of a three-game series, leaving preparation games thin on the ground but the sounds are positive from the camp. Grundie admits it has been less than ideal, preparing with matches against the Ulster U18 and Irish U17 boys before sweeping by an Indian U21 women’s team 4-1.
“We have been determined to want to qualify for Tokyo. Our preparation has led us that way; we know what we are up against and this week is a really important one.”