The Irish women’s date with destiny edges ever closer with the Energia Park stage all set for their Olympic qualifier showdown with Canada.
"The World Cup silver was huge and I don’t think anybody will ever forget it," Gillian Pinder said ahead of the weekend's two-legged series.
“But to be able to be satisfied with everything you achieved when you finish playing, you need to get to the Olympic Games.
“When programmes and structures are put in place, it is based around the Olympics. That’s the base platform and everything is constructed around it. "There is a World Cup in the middle of those four years, but that is seen as the midway point of the cycle.”
Since then, Ireland’s programme has changed massively to the point where this contest sees Ireland in the rare role of the haves, rather than have-nots. Since the World Cup, a dedicated training base has come on stream at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. Softco have expanded their sponsorship of the side while Park Developments inked a four-year investment deal.
The latter package means the side has been able to go an almost full-time, training together four days a week in addition to regional sessions. Where once they slept over with teammates, hotel beds are available. The 6am gym work-outs before work are over with scope for planned rest and recovery times.
With such a sea change, numerous Irish players have stated they feel the current squad is better than the one that won silver in London.
But what of Canada? Their tale is the opposite. Their Own the Podium funding – which had amounted to over 2 million Canadian dollars for the Rio cycle – evaporated. They pulled out of a tour to Ireland earlier this year due to financial issues and had to crowd-fund over €80,000 to play in the World Series and they continue to self-finance their programme.
It has seen them make the radical move to relocate en masse to Belgium and the Netherlands for collective training. In Europe, they can pick up semi-pro contracts and coaching roles with clubs. They can also be closer to their coach Giles Bonnet whose contract officially ended at the end of the Pan-Am Games earlier this year but he has stayed on to help their cause.
The incredible thing is their ranking has risen markedly since funding was withdrawn and their run to the Pan Am final, beating USA 2-0, lifted them from 21st to 15th in one year. Last summer, they won a series in Dublin and, as Gillian Pinder says “there is no way this will be a thrashing”.
The gap in preparation is stark but is still guarantees nothing for the Green Army as they finally look to make their biggest step forward.
Ireland v Canada, Energia Park, 7pm; Corinthian v Naas, Whitechurch Park, 1.15pm Limerick v Cork C of I, Villiers, 12pm. Ashton v Bandon, Ashton School, 2.30pm; Waterford v Cork Harlequins, Newtown, 2.30pm
Ireland v Canada, Energia Park, 7.10pm; Ashton v Limerick, Ashton School, 2.30pm.