Ireland take shot at history

Seven days on from the biggest result in Irish hockey history, the opponent and the venue is the same as Ireland look to make an even more seismic impact.

Ireland take shot at history

By Stephen Findlater

Seven days on from the biggest result in Irish hockey history, the opponent and the venue is the same as Ireland look to make an even more seismic impact.

They face India at Lee Valley in London at 6pm with a World Cup semi-final ticket on the line, hoping they can reprise their 1-0 victory.

Ireland skipper Katie Mullan briefs her team-mates before facing England at Lee Valley. Pic: Christopher Lee/Getty Images
Ireland skipper Katie Mullan briefs her team-mates before facing England at Lee Valley. Pic: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

It is fantasy land for the second lowest ranked side in the competition, the only non full-time side in their pool with wins over the US and India already exceeding expectations.

It is a situation the players freely admit they could scarcely have imagined but the hunger and belief is there that they can go make that next step.

With the benefit of a quirky draw, they have managed to be aligned with one of only two other sides ranked outside the top eight left in the competition, one they have already beaten in London and, indeed, have never lost to in a ranking event.

Skipper Katie Mullan admits that if she was offered such a scenario before the tournament, she would not so much have bitten your hand off but “taken it and ran as far away as I could with it, as quickly as possible”.

She adds: “It’s something that all of us have only ever dreamed of so it’s really exciting.”

Indeed, team manager Arlene Boyles — with experience of an inverse experience at the 2002 World Cup when they lost seven out of seven group games — knows how much the paradigm has shifted in the space of a week.

“Everyone asks you what would be success [before the tournament] and you say things like ‘get out of the pool, reach a quarter-final’,” Boyles says.

“But we have bigger dreams and bigger goals. Now that we are here, touched it, felt it, we are looking around us and thinking ‘how far can we go in this tournament?’

“To say we would be disappointed with a quarter-final spot coming into the tournament, we would by lying. Now, to say we would be disappointed not to go further, we would by lying.”

While history in this fixture is in the Green Army’s favour, there is little room for complacency with margins very slim.

When Ireland nabbed qualification last summer with a 2-1 win against India, it was fraught, requiring a penalty stroke save from Grace O’Flanagan and two goals in the last 10 minutes.

Within the 1-0 success seven days ago, India earned seven penalty corners while England ran up 15 in Sunday’s final group game.

In the normal run of things, a conversion rate of 30% or upwards would be expected.

A decent portion of that is down to Graham Shaw’s video analysis work, designing the running lines to shut down the Indian attack.

But it does provide opposition India’s coach Sjoerd Marijne with a bank of information to adjust to.

Their 3-0 win over Italy on Tuesday in their crossover match, while facile, was as confident as they have looked, playing with fluidity and pace on the counter.

The great imponderable is also how either side reacts to the magnitude, a level which neither side have come close to encountering before.

Marijne admitted the women’s team is nearly invisible in India despite hockey officially being the national sport.

On Tuesday evening during their win over Italy, Google’s top “Indian hockey” story was led exclusively by a men’s squad selection with the women appearing below the fold.

As such, the Dutchman is hopeful this week could be a seminal one for women in general in the country.

From Ireland’s perspective they have exuded a happy-go-lucky outlook, savouring every moment with smiles on their faces.

Now, though, how they cope with the tension which comes with the opportunity presented to them will be a big factor.

“We can really take confidence from the previous games,” Mullan says. “But it is completely different stakes now and so it will be a completely different game.”

There is the possibility that despite the ground-breaking nature of what they have achieved thus far could be coloured in a different light should they bow out at this stage.

But Mullan knows there is a massive amount they can take from the event no matter what happens tonight.

“Right now, to put what it all means into words is very difficult because we don’t really realise the impact we have had back home,” Mullan continues.

“You look at the girls who have given up their jobs, those who have moved away from home to better leagues. The sacrifices are huge.

“We have our own little bubble here and to recognise what has happened may take a couple of months. But it’s really nice to reap the rewards after everything people have given up and put into this team.

"To do it in the manner we have, with such a tight-knit group of people, is something special but it is not something we can fully realise until it’s all over.”

The quarter-final will take place at 6pm rather than the originally billed 8.15pm to accommodate hosts England playing at primetime.

RTÉ, meanwhile, have announced they will broadcast the tie live.

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