Ireland start their World League semi-final campaign on Saturday morning against Japan in Johannesburg in the first of four group games with Olympic medalists Germany and England also on the agenda, either side of a must-win tie against Poland.
Ireland earned their place at the top table with a devastating performance at World League Round 2 in Malaysia in January, sweeping to six wins, scoring 39 times and conceding just once. Such performances have raised hopes they can qualify for a major event for the first time since 2002.
Since then, the Cork Harlequins’ contingent has slimmed from five players to two with Cliodhna Sargent pregnant while both Rebecca Barry and Naomi Carroll are out injured. Yvonne O’Byrne and Upton remain in situ.
With regular captain Megan Frazer out with a cruciate knee ligament injury, Graham Shaw has had to make changes with Upton coming from completely out of the loop to be a vital cog in the team in a few short months.
It is, though, a long-time coming after two painful false starts. Her first call-up came in 2015 but a hip problem ruled her out of the summer’s action. A second call came in January 2016 for a trip to Spain but a scan for what she thought was an innocuous knock revealed a stress fracture, a protective boot and, eventually, double hip surgery.
Shaw, though, was persistent and wanted to get Upton involved having seen what she could do with the Uconn Huskies, winning a pair of NCAA titles and being named an All-American twice.
Upton eventually made her international debut in December just a couple of days after playing her first match in 12 months, a club tie for Cork Harlequins that would make her eligible to play the second half of the season in Ireland.
She was still based in the US at the time, working to complete some leftover courses to complete her degree but was not allowed to line out for the Huskies during this period.
“Trying to recover from the extended downtime was a challenge. I wasn’t getting any meaningful game time in the States; I was trying to get my fitness back and I didn’t know how my hips would react to it all.
“What really took my by surprise was how mentally challenging this time was. It’s only a matter of putting in hours and pushing through the pain barriers to get your fitness back but it was the nagging questions; would I be the same player I was?
“Would I recover in time to get myself into the mix for the 2017 Irish programme? Where would I fit in with Quins, my new club?”
Shaw, though, saw the opportunity and threw her in at the deep end. He saw enough in the three-game series against Scotland to put her in for the World League Round 2 tournament in January in Malaysia.
“Graham showed a huge amount of understanding and patience. He put the target in front of me for Malaysia; I knew it was up to me to get as fit as possible to give myself the best chance.”
Now, she looks the heir apparent for Frazer’s libero role. Her close skills and eye for goal – demonstrated in a brilliant finish against China in June – are combined with sweeping passes. When deployed in defence, she picks off crucial tackles in a clinch.
“If there’s a green jersey at stake I’ll play anywhere I’m asked to! Traditionally I play a holding midfield role and look to break forward.
“With Cliodhna [Sargent] unavailable, Graham has found a role for me in central defence so I’m more than happy to develop my game in that position.”
As for the wider Irish squad, they are in confident mood following impressive wins over top-ten ranked Germany and Korea last week in Berlin.
The World Cup itself has been enlarged to 16 teams from 12 for the 2018 edition and so a top-five place in Johannesburg will confirm qualification but as low as seventh place is likely to be enough once the continental championships are factored in.
The first task is to finish in the top four in the five-team group which leads through to a quarter-final. Win and qualification is assured; lose and they are destined for the fifth-to-eighth-place playoffs.
All of which looks doable for a side ranked 15th but producing stronger performances than at any other time in the last decade.
And the Limerick woman is looking forward to playing her bit part in ending the 16-year wait for a World Cup berth after so many false starts.
“It’s a dream come true [to be part of the squad]. It doesn’t get much better than this. Hopefully, it leads to a World Cup and springboards us into an Olympic Games.”
July 8: Ireland v Japan, 11am; July 10: Ireland v Germany, 1pm; July 12: Ireland v Poland, 1pm; July 16: Ireland v England, 1pm; July 18-22: Classification matches.