Minority sports crave that moment that propels them into the national sporting consciousness. Think Katie Taylor at London 2012 and the O’Donovans in Rio 2016. Hockey Ireland’s Phil Oakley swears that after Irish ’s exploits at the Cricket World Cup in 2007, he saw lads using hurleys to play cricket in Mayfield on Cork’s northside.
Ireland’s men’s team have done their bit to raise hockey’s profile, overcoming an Olympic qualifier defeat in the dying seconds in 2012 to win European bronze in 2015, qualify for Rio 2016 with a series of remarkable results and acquit themselves well there, establishing Ireland as a world top 10 side. Their World Cup odyssey begins later this year.
But the progression of Ireland’s women to the World Cup final, despite yesterday’s heavy defeat, has set the bar even higher. This was their first time qualifying for the World Cup since 2002, and getting out of a pool containing three sides ranked well above them was the height of their initial ambition.
Upsets are rare in international hockey. The top sides either have hockey as one of their country’s most popular sports, funding to allow athletes train full-time, or both.
Ireland has neither, and went into the World Cup as the world’s 16th-best team, the second-lowest seeds. Yet, a bunch of amateurs fighting against full-time professional teams, on a fraction of the funding, paying a €550 levy just to represent their country until they got sponsorship from SoftCo a few months out from the tournament, made it all the way to the final.
Behind the scenes, Hockey Ireland have an overworked skeleton full-time staff, and the provincial branches beneath them are manned by dwindling numbers of volunteers. Budgets are on a shoestring and all are firefighting just to keep the game going.
The high-performance coaches responsible for the provincial and underage international sides aren’t paid. Players have to pay or raise sponsorship for pitch rental, gear and travel every step of the way to represent their province and country.
So, a bit like Croatia’s run to the football World Cup final, Ireland’s women’s achievements have in some ways come in spite of the system, not because of it.
It’s also noticeable how much Ireland seemed to enjoy themselves at this World Cup. They were all smiles during the anthem and in interviews; they’ve routinely made fun of each other on national TV.
Ali Meeke sung some Bieber on the BBC, then poked fun at her own lack of goalscoring prowess after nutmegging the Indian goalkeeper in a quarter-final shootout. Shirley McCay spent a half-time interview in the same game joking about how a stick to the face “just adds to the beauty”.
Ayeisha McFerran, the 22-year-old who was named goalkeeper of the tournament for her heroics between the sticks, gave the most uplifting, squeal-infested post-match interview you’re likely to see.
Upon progressing to the final, coach Graham Shaw mentioned he’d been “asking the Dutch for three years for a bloody game and they won’t bloody play us, so they don’t have a choice now!”
It’s in sharp contrast to the dull, give-nothing-away mentality we see too much of in modern sport. These people aren’t media trained, their delight is raw and their bandwagon is all the better for it.
Dig deeper into the players’ backstories and you see why they’re milking the moment. They say champions are made when nobody’s looking, and there have been plenty of personal setbacks along the way.
Goalkeeper Grace O’Flanagan is a cancer survivor at just 26 years old. Megan Frazer needed three knee surgeries to make the tournament. Yvonne O’Byrne was overlooked for selection for Ireland U16 and U21 teams before finally making the grade at senior level.
It goes beyond the 18 who were in London. Cliodhna Sargent, a veteran of over 200 caps, fought back to fitness after the birth of her first child, but missed out on selection. Rebecca Barry took a career break to give her all at training in the months before the selection deadline, and coach Graham Shaw had bad news for her too.
For all that, both the Irish men’s and women’s teams have the same mantra: no excuses. For instance, Shaw has expressed gratitude for what funding and sponsorship they do have, rather than using his platform to stick the boot into the Government for funding this side so sparsely.
Like another team of overachievers, Ireland’s Women’s Rugby World Cup semi-finalists of 2014, this group is as humble and likeable as they are successful. Incredible ambassadors for hockey, but more importantly, for women’s sport. They are inspiring young girls to think about what their body can do, not what it looks like. They deserve their success. They deserve our plaudits. And they’re just getting started.