Ireland's hockey team underdogs have been down this road before 

Three years ago the Ireland women’s hockey team secured an early 3-1 win over the USA which provided the platform for a run to the World Cup final.
Ireland's hockey team underdogs have been down this road before 

Three years ago the Ireland women’s hockey team secured an early 3-1 win over the USA which provided the platform for a run to the World Cup final. Zoe Wilson, Hannah Matthews, and Roisin Upton are pictured celebrating. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

The rules may differ but the tenets governing team sports remain universal. Play as a collective rather than as individuals. Be disciplined. Manage the occasion and the officials. Make full use of your possession and opportunities.

Much the same applies when it comes to major tournaments. If there is one unquestioned principle it’s the need to start fast and generate momentum that can carry you through the rest of the pool stages and maybe even deeper into the field.

It’s not a surefire way of extending your interest: Think of how Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side began their Euro ’88 and USA ’94 campaigns with famous wins over England and Italy but failed to capitalise fully on either one.

Go back just three years, though, and it worked a charm for the Ireland women’s hockey team when a 3-1 win over the USA provided the platform for a run to the World Cup final, by which time many felt they had long since passed their station.

“The USA was always our target game,” says Deirdre Duke who earned silver in London and is now in Tokyo.

“The performance set the platform for the rest of tournament. As the confidence grew, the belief grew within squad. There was very little expectations, it was our first experience of a major tournament bar the Europeans. We had momentum and got the bounce of the ball in a shootout with one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”

Ayeisha McFerran’s three penalty saves set the stage for Gillian Pinder to score the goal that put Ireland through to the decider and, while the Dutch duly put six past the Larne woman, it still made for an astonishing and memorable 16 days for a side ranked 12th in the world.

They are up to the ninth rung on the ladder but the focus remains the same here when they register a first ever Olympic appearance with a group opener against South Africa at the Oi Stadium (11am Saturday, Irish time).

Their opponents sit seven places below them in the rankings, which makes it a must-win in a group that will see them play five times. It also represents a much more doable task than their first-up fixture in last month’s EuroHockey Nations Championship against the Netherlands.

Sean Dancer’s squad was in a good place going into that.

The pandemic had presented them with the same headaches as everyone else over the previous year-and-a-bit but there had been encouraging games played against Team GB in Belfast and other promising camps and outings besides.

The 4-0 loss to the top-ranked Netherlands on day one was no disgrace but they never quite found their stride thereafter. Scotland were seen off but a draw with Spain edged them out of a semi-final place and they were beaten well by England before accounting for Italy and finishing sixth.

“Yeah, I think we were definitely disappointed,” says the defender Hannah Matthews who provides another link between the World Cup and these Games. “We felt like we didn’t represent how well we have been playing and how well we have been training. That was definitely a frustration but put it in context and the Europeans are a brutal tournament. You just can’t afford to make mistakes.”

If games were played on paper then Ireland would breach Group A and make the quarter-finals as the fourth qualifier. The Dutch and Germany are ranked first and third. England, who sit in fifth, are basically augmented for the Games by the best that Wales and Scotland have to offer.

Team GB are also the reigning champions.

Wins against South African and India stand out, then, as games of crucial import, although this is not an Ireland side that can afford to portray its task in such clinical and frankly unambitious terms and limited terms.

They’ve already shocked the world once, after all.

“You have to believe in yourself or it’s no use to anyone,” says Matthews whose father Philip was captain of Ireland when they came so close to beating Australia, the eventual champions, in the quarter-final of the 1991 Rugby World Cup.

“We’re the ones that matter.

“We saw in the World Cup that anything can happen. There’s not really any pressure on us. There’s a lot of pressure on other teams, like the Dutch, GB, the Germans, so we are going in there very little pressure and we know that on our day we can take it to the top teams.”

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