Ireland international Yvonne O’Byrne is energised rather than daunted by the considerable challenge facing the Green Army when Women’s Hockey World Cup gets underway in England on Saturday.
But then O’Byrne is a real life ‘energiser’ before she even sets foot on a hockey pitch.
The Cork PhD student is part of a primary school initiative with Cork Institute of Technology called ‘Project Spraoi’, which aims to increase children’s physical activity, improve their nutrition, and ultimately improve their overall health.
“What are trying to do is build 20 minutes [of] moderate to vigorous activity into the school day so we actually have an ‘energiser’, which is what I would be called. We would model 20-minute physical activity or healthy eating lessons to every teacher and class in the school and then the teacher would try and do it the days that we weren’t there.
“It’s such a topical area at the moment. Sometimes you can be even too late at primary school which you wouldn’t think but it could be even younger again. Our junior group would be senior infants and the older group would be fourth class and you can even see trends of obesity starting to emerge in someone six or seven years old.”
It’s a trend she’s able to keep close tabs on in secondary schools as well. In between juggling books with donning the green jersey, O’Byrne can be found coaching her former school’s senior hockey team at Mount Mercy College. A nod of gratitude to an institution which gave her so much and of whom she speaks so fondly.
Aged 14, O’ Byrne won an All-Ireland Schools Kate Russell Cup (senior) as the youngest member of the team: not bad for a player who had never picked up a stick before walking through the school gates.
“You spend so much time together that you can’t help but build really close relationships with those players and even what I find now going back coaching in the school is you see the exact same relationships being built up. It’s great to watch young players now and I really enjoy going back and seeing the teams.”
As for her coaching prowess, ‘Mercy’ won the Minor A, Junior A, and Senior grade cups last season.
Those formative years left an indelible mark on the now 26-year-old as she switched allegiances from her “absolute love” of soccer and Wilton United to hockey with Cork Harlequins.
It proved a shrewd decision. O’Byrne went on to captain Munster at U16, U18, and U21 level, winning a senior interprovincial title in 2011. She was catapulted to the Cork Harlequins captaincy at just 19, going on to win a Munster Senior League title with the club.
A dynamic defender, she has been a pivotal part of the Irish side since her major tournament debut in 2015 at the World League semi-final in Valencia. Yet it wasn’t all plain sailing for tough tackling O’Byrne, who had her own share of disappointments trying to make Irish panels.
I made it into the national squad quite later than a lot of players who come in when they’re 18. I think I was 21 or 22 in 2014 when I got my first cap and the first few years are rocky for any player coming in. You’re trying to build yourself a reputation, build yourself into the squad, and in the last two years I’ve tried to cement my place a bit more.
Those setbacks fuelled a steely determination which has seen her clock up 113 caps and five goals she is currently on a run of 36 consecutive games for Ireland since June 2017 when she was rested.
Now she is embracing her biggest career challenge to date. The World Cup will see the Green Army’s first tournament appearance since 2002 and they are up against it.
Ranked 16th in the world, only Italy (17th), sit below them in this tournament and, with the Top 10 teams all being full-time athletes, compared to Ireland who have just four, the task at hand seems daunting.
“They live together, they train together, they are full-time, and that’s what we’re competing with and that’s why we do need the help of Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and SoftCo (Ireland new sponsors). We need them to allow us to compete with those programmes because without that help and without that funding, we wouldn’t get enough hours together to compete with those full-time programmes.
“Obviously when you can have a club pay for your accommodation, food, car, it does give you the freedom to train more regularly. You can really focus on your diet, your fitness, your technical ability, and can really hone in on it. When you’re working nine to five, you’re worrying about paying rent or your car insurance, and living expenses that we all have,” says O’Byrne.
While “the ultimate goal” would be to go all professional, the squad know that on their day, they can still compete with the world’s best.
“I definitely think that the gap between the top higher-ranked teams and the mid-ranked teams is getting smaller and smaller, we can all turn any team over now, it’s an open game when we go into these tournaments.”
A recent away win over a world No.6-ranked German outfit is a testament to that. “It’s our second time beating them now in Germany. We beat them this time last year in Germany as well so that was a real good confidence booster for us going into this tournament.”
All the World Cup games will be played at the 15,000-capacity Lee Valley Stadium. Ireland are pooled against the USA (July 21), India (July 26), and a final group clash against hosts England (July 29).
“Every game is important but regardless there’s always going to be that rivalry with England, any time you take to the pitch, whether it’s the first or the last game, every single time you get in the pitch against an English team in any sport, there’s always that natural rivalry there and they’re a great team to play, they’re physical and aggressive and we like that because it suits us.
It’s an unbelievable opportunity, we have been trying to get there for so long and to qualify for this World Cup in particular, in London, it’s very close for people to travel over, there’s obviously a lot of people living in London and we just really hope we can boost the team’s profile and the sport in general in Ireland, having all the games live on TV. It’s going to give us such a good platform. You couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.
Should Ireland notch some points on the board before the clash, it could energise the Irish sporting public, support which is bound to super-charge O’ Byrne and her team.