Friday 15 November 2019

Sinead Kissane: 'Original dream of booking ticket to Tokyo is agonisingly close for Ireland'


Lizzie Colvin (left) and Shirley McCay have their sights set on Tokyo. Photo: Sportsfile
Lizzie Colvin (left) and Shirley McCay have their sights set on Tokyo. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

There's a paragraph in Sport Ireland's 211-page report into the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games that points to the devastation felt by players in the Ireland women's hockey team after they lost out on qualification for the 2016 Olympics.

In June 2015, they played China in a World League quarter-final in Spain which was a winner-takes-all Olympic qualifier. With the game locked at 1-1, Megan Frazer scored what looked like the winning goal with five minutes left. But the goal was subsequently ruled out after the umpires reviewed it - replays showed the ball accidentally struck an Irish foot in the build-up. The game went to penalties. Ireland lost 4-3 in sudden death. Their Olympic dream was shattered. And so were the players.

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Sean (Dancer) talks a lot about the attacking mentality and he wants every player to have it
Sean (Dancer) talks a lot about the attacking mentality and he wants every player to have it

Sport Ireland's review of the 2016 Olympics also covered the qualification phase for the hockey teams which was why the women's team was involved in this report.

As well as online questionnaires, there were extensive interviews carried out, including five with female players and two management personnel from the women's team. Under the headline 'general feedback', the report found that "players and management felt let down by the withdrawal of support after failing to qualify for Rio, specifically the support of a sports psychologist.

Some players found failing to qualify for the Games extremely difficult to process and felt abandoned in terms of support systems around the team.

There was also alarming feedback in the report about the financial constraints the hockey teams were operating under, including the line that "it was accepted that had the women's team also qualified for the Games it would have been near to impossible to prepare two high performance units properly to compete at Rio."

This led to tensions between the national men's and women's teams. "Questions were raised by the men's team about the allocation of substantial funding (€100k) to the women's team to compete at overseas tournaments, even though they had failed to qualify for the Games," the review stated.

"That funding decision and the lack of communication around funding the women's team at that time led to tensions between both programmes."

The review gave 27 recommendations for Hockey Ireland to put in place including the recruitment of a High Performance Director which was implemented last year with the appointment of Adam Grainger.

It also recommended the use of more specialist coaches and support staff for both teams, recommendations which Hockey Ireland said this week are being "either carried out or underway."

Former Ireland rugby player Gary Longwell has been working with the women's squad as a performance coach and was described as "the most unsung hero" after the 2018 Hockey World Cup. Sponsorship has also improved. For example, SoftCo - a software provider - began their sponsorship of the women's team just before the World Cup last year and have extended it to 2021.

There are 10 players from that Ireland women's hockey squad who missed out on Rio Olympic qualification four years ago who are in the squad for this weekend's two-legged Olympic qualifier tie against Canada in Donnybrook.

Of those 10 players, five were also part of the panel which failed to reach the 2012 London Olympics. So, incredibly, this is a third attempt to play in an Olympic Games for Nikki Evans, Shirley McCay, Chloe Watkins, Lizzie Colvin and Nicci Daly, with McCay - the most capped Irish sportswoman ever - playing for a record 300th time for Ireland.

While Ireland are favourites to beat Canada - they're ranked eighth in the FIH World Rankings compared to Canada's 15th, the higher ranking gave Ireland home advantage - Olympic play-offs do come with a health warning.

With each passing four-year cycle, there seems to be no end to the heartbreaking tight margins an Irish hockey team can experience in missing out on Olympic qualification, as we saw last weekend with the men's team.

This women's team are the reigning World Cup silver medallists, but their first aim has always been the Olympics. "The Olympic Games was always, always the goal and the dream for this team," former Ireland head coach Graham Shaw said two months after they played in a World Cup final.

The captain, Katie Mullan: "That ticket for Tokyo has been our dream since day one and it is all we have ever wanted. It would mean the world to us to get that." And Gillian Pinder: "I think the programme is designed around the Olympic cycle. To be properly happy with how the four-year cycle has gone you need to go to the Olympic Games."

And there they are, those dreaded words which have been ripped apart at the seams recently when it came to another one of our national teams.

The four-year cycle.

The Ireland women's hockey team and the Ireland men's rugby team were out on their own with the successes they enjoyed in 2018. But then came the devastating crash for the rugby team in the most important tournament of their four-year cycle.

Year two of the hockey team's four-year cycle saw them shatter a glass ceiling no-one even had time to put in place when they won silver in the Hockey World Cup last year.

While Joe Schmidt gave a year's notice he would be leaving, there was huge shock when Shaw suddenly left as head coach of the women's team eight months ago.

Even though it's hard to shake the sense that we still don't know the full ins and outs of Shaw's departure, the bounce a new head coach inevitably brings may turn out to be the best move for this squad.

Sean Dancer arrived from New Zealand and has been instilling a more attacking approach into the players. "Sean talks a lot about the attacking mentality and he wants every player to have it, not just the forwards," Sarah Hawkshaw said recently on Off the Bench. "He wants every single player to think that they're going to score a goal."

Declaring an Irish team to be the "best prepared ever" to achieve a previously insurmountable feat has become almost a certainty to come back and bite you.

This year has been an unconvincing one so far for the Ireland women's hockey team after heightened expectations following their unforgettable World Cup run.

Reaching the semi-final stage of the European Championships for the first time ever eluded the team in August when a 1-1 draw with Germany wasn't quite enough for them to reach the last four.

Not every team manages to get the four-year cycle right. But right now, this is the most important weekend of their careers. Not the World Cup. Not the Europeans. Qualifying for next year's Olympic Games has always been this team's first and original dream.

These are the two days they've been waiting for.

Irish Independent

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