The Green Machine’s nervous three-month wait to learn their Olympic fate ended in the early hours of yesterday morning as Australia’s 3-2 Oceania Cup final win over New Zealand in Stratford confirmed their berth in Rio.
It means Ireland will have a hockey team at the Olympics for the first time in 108 years, while the country has not been represented at a Games in any field team sport since 1948.
Under an oft-criticised, convoluted qualification system, Ireland’s fifth place at World League 3 in Antwerp in July left them on a lucky loser list, their Olympic qualification dependent on results of the continental championships. One door shut when Ireland failed to win August’s European championships, although the bronze medal earned there was the country’s first top three finish at that level.
Where continental champions were the same as already qualified sides, the next allocation for Rio came from the World League placings. Victory for Australia, whose Olympic place was already confirmed, got Ireland over the line.
The majority of the Irish squad gathered to watch the game at BBC’s offices in Belfast, with the final whistle at 4.20am Irish time greeted by jubilation and relief.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s been in the making for a long time,” said Fulton. “It will change the sport forever, Ireland loves team sports and now one is going to the Olympics. It will put an emphasis on the sport that it hasn’t had in a while.”
Ronan Gormley agreed that Ireland’s Olympic participation represented an opportunity for the sport to grow its profile, in a similar manner cricket managed thanks to 2007’s World Cup giant-killing heroics. “There’s a great grassroots following for hockey and a lot of good people involved,” he told Dublin’s 104FM. “That’s always been there but what’s been missing is the national profile of the sport. This is going to give it a massive boost.”
Eugene Magee said the result was “10 years in the making“, a nod to the qualification near misses of previous Olympic cycles. Ireland were one goal shy of making the final play-off in 2008 before losing to Korea in the last seven seconds of the 2012 qualifying final.
Neither players nor management have been slow to emphasise the need for financial and sponsorship support having got this far on a shoestring budget as the 14th-ranked team in the world.
Three of the five higher-ranked sides Ireland beat this year — England, Pakistan and Malaysia — are in full-time, funded training programmes while Belgium, whom Ireland ousted in the Euros at the pool stage, boast a pro league.
By contrast, many of Ireland’s players take unpaid work leave to represent their country, while they’ve also been robbed of the talents of five Ulster players who came through the Irish system but switched to Great Britain to boost their Olympic hopes.
Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey said Ireland’s qualification is “truly a historic one, being the first time in many decades the Irish challenge for Olympic success will feature a full team rather than individuals.
“The players truly deserve this after such disappointment over qualification for London 2012. We look forward to joining the exciting journey of this important all-island sport in Rio.”