They had to overcome any amount of obstacles to make it to their first Olympic Games but Ireland’s women’s hockey team aren’t done with navigating tricky paths. Kicking on again will be every bit as testing in the three-year cycle to come.
Five of the players who featured in their last Group A game against Great Britain on Saturday night are aged 29 or over. Ten of the 16 featured three years ago when the squad negotiated their way to an unlikely World Cup final.
The 2-0 defeat to GB didn’t just bring their Tokyo dreams to an end, it will likely mark the end for a handful, at least, of those players who had worked so hard for so long to make their appearance on the game’s biggest stage happen.
The players and staff lingered for an age on the pitch afterwards, emptying their souls as they had done their reserves through a gruelling five-match schedule squeezed into just eight days. The tears were still flowing as they swept through the mixed zone.
“We’re just the lucky 18 or 19 that get to be here,” said Roisin Upton. “We’ve been training as a squad of 30 all year. As you know, it’s been a four- or five-year journey to get here and there’s many people at home who would have died to be here.
“Our family and friends would love to be here. It’s the end of a cycle and we’re going to be losing a couple of senior players. It’s always tricky and it’s bittersweet. We’ve broken the barrier now. We’ve competed at our first Olympics and hopefully it won’t be our last.”
Upton pinpointed a touch of inexperience as one of the factors in the team failing to make it beyond Group A. A win against South Africa on day one set them up perfectly but, of the four defeats that followed, it was the late heartbreaker to India that cost them most.
Upton, understandably, wants to see this as the start of something rather than the end. The World Cup they starred in was the team’s first since the start of the millennium but this Olympic debut didn’t live up to expectations.
Losing to the Netherlands and Germany as they did was no disgrace but Ireland were dominated by both India and Great Britain and managing four goals in five games serves as an obvious example of where they struggled.
Coach Sean Dancer painted a rosier picture of those two fixtures while admitting they hadn’t been good enough to make the last eight but they have little time to digest this particular chapter of their lives.
“The difficult part is the World Cup qualifier in October,” said Dancer. “The Olympics is normally the end of your cycle so you want to have a good down period to refresh and get ready again. Unfortunately for us we have a bit more work to get done for the rest of the year and we have to let the dust settle.
“People like Shirley (McCay) have been playing so long and this has been their goal and dream and, in the end, once they get back to Ireland, they need to let it settle and we’ll look at what the team looks like from there. I’m certainly confident of the group moving forward.”
It’s a sizeable task for a group that faces into such significant change, struggled to find its form at both the EuroHockey Championships earlier this summer and in Tokyo, and which now faces into a shortened three-year Olympic cycle.