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'It's unbelievable to play with your best friends, and now we get to play in a World Cup together'

It has been a long time coming, but after years of hard work, sacrifice and pain, Nikki Evans and her Ireland team-mates will realise a career-long dream this Friday.

FIH Hockey World League - Women's Semi Finals: Day 3 Nikki Evans is part of Ireland's squad for next week's Hockey World Cup. Source: Jan Kruger

SOMETIMES, IT JUST means more.

See Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon yesterday, or Ireland’s four sprint sensations tearing it up in Tampere, achieving history when nobody believed it was possible. It means more when achievement is contextualised, and pain has preceded triumph.

Because behind every success story is an emotionally-charged journey, often a white-knuckle ride of highs and lows, joy and despair and moments in time when the flame flickered. When the term ‘near miss’ is pluralised. When that thread of optimism threatened to snap, but never did because there was always that one ambition driving it forward.

Sport does that, no matter the level. It takes and takes, but will always recompense. Tears are par for the course, but the rewards will always outweigh the sacrifices. Even if it’s for one fleeting moment of glory. Of success. Of vindication. It’s always worth it.

Just ask anyone inside the Royal Marine Hotel on Friday last. An afternoon filled with unadulterated pride, with raw emotion, with pure bloody relief. But, above all, an afternoon when 18 players and those closest to them — those who have endured, and survived, this ride with them — could pause, take a break, and reflect on the journey.

A first Women’s Hockey World Cup appearance in 16 years is by no means the destination for this group of players under the management of Graham Shaw, but the last few weeks have already witnessed a series of epochal moments.

From the investment of SoftCo as the team’s primary sponsor after a protracted, and desperate, search for support, to the announcement of the playing squad for London 2018. To this, the official shirt presentation for next week’s World Cup.

Not only were the players able to share the occasion with their family and friends, but did so together as a group which has formed an enviable dressing room bond and togetherness, a culture founded on so much more than what happens on the pitch.

This journey stretches further back than the heartbreak of Rio, or the agony of missing out on London. It stretches back to when Chloe Watkins and Gillian Pinder played in primary school together, or when Nikki Evans, Anna O’Flanagan and Megan Frazer first pulled on the Ireland jersey at underage level together.

It has been years in the making.

Maybe that’s why it means so much.

“There’s a big group of us here who played together on the underage teams so we’ve come up together as a group,” Evans tells The42.

“We’ve made that natural progression together, and it’s just unbelievable to play with your best friends week in, week out and now we get to play in a World Cup together. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Evans, like so many of her team-mates, has been in the international set-up for a number of years now, racking up over 150 senior caps since her debut against Germany in 2010, flying the flag, when not many were taking notice.

It has been a lonely and thankless crusade at times, for so long the hard work and commitment didn’t yield the results such sacrifice and application deserved.

FIH Hockey World League - Women's Semi Finals: Day 3 Evans has won over 150 international caps, becoming a key player for Ireland. Source: Jan Kruger

There were glorious highs, but crushing lows were never far behind.

Maybe that’s why it means so much.

“I think those tough times have really stood to us,” Evans says. “Last year we rose to the pressure and after years of knocking on the door, finally achieved the qualification we wanted to.”

It is the first time since 2002 that Ireland have qualified for the tournament and will be just the fourth time in the 43-year history of the World Cup that this nation will be represented at the pinnacle of the women’s game.

A sell-out crowd of 15,000 at the Lee Valley Olympic Stadium, as well as a global TV audience of millions, is the type of stage Ireland have craved, but at the same time the type of attention that presents its own challenges.

In that sense, the experience Evans and a number of key players have garnered from playing professionally in some of Europe’s top leagues will be an invaluable asset for Shaw’s side as they look to negotiate their way through a formidable group containing USA, India and hosts England.

The 28-year-old is coming off a maiden season playing professional hockey in Germany, where she helped UHC Hamburg to silver medals in the national championships and European club cup, having put her career as a lawyer with Mason Hayes and Curran on hold.

“The best decision I’ve ever made,” she says. “I qualified as a lawyer a year ago and with it being a World Cup year, playing professionally was always something I wanted to do. It was an unbelievable experience.”

The benefits of playing alongside some of the best players in the world in a professional environment are unquestionable, and certainly the timing of the opportunity couldn’t have been better for Evans.

It was, without doubt, a season that exceeded all expectations and it speaks volumes of her impact as an athletic, hard-working and goalscoring forward that Evans has already been offered a contract for next year.

Hockey will remain the focus in Germany, but Evans will combine her training and playing schedule with a position in the international law firm, CMS, where she will continue to progress her career off the pitch.

Balancing the two has always been important for Evans, not only because the amateur set-up in Ireland demands it, but because she has always performed to her best — both on the pitch and academically — when the two have gone hand-in-hand.

“It’s when I’m at my best, having two different things in my life,” she explains. “I use one as an escape from the other and vice versa and that’s important because it gives your mind a rest.

“At times it’s tough and has been tough, but there are so many traits you learn from being a sportsperson that are transferable into the work place and vice versa. I look forward to leaving work to go to training and I’m extremely grateful to my employers for all the support. It goes without saying but I couldn’t have done it without them.”

FHOCKEY-EURO-2017-WOMEN-CZH-IRE Ireland will face USA in their opening World Cup match next Friday. Source: AFP/Getty Images

All of this — a pro-contract in Germany, starring in the European club competition, one of the poster girls for Irish hockey, and a first World Cup — is a million miles away from where it all started for Evans.

“I was a late bloomer,” she laughs.

A self-confessed sports-mad kid who was encouraged to play ‘everything’ by her parents, Evans excelled at Gaelic football and athletics in her formative years, and it wasn’t until she went into secondary school at Alexandra College when hockey entered her life.

The natural talent was there from the outset — the hand-eye co-ordination from Gaelic football and agility and speed from athletics were all transferable skills — but it was the team aspect, and camaraderie, of hockey which really appealed to Evans.

“I remember the first training session in school,” she recalls.

“The stick was far too short for me and I was hunched over. I hadn’t got a clue but the coaches were always so encouraging and I just absolutely loved the team feeling.”

From there, Evans’ hockey career took off and as she became the driving force behind Alexandra College’s success at schoolgirl level again, representative honours with Leinster and Ireland followed.

Hockey had taken precedence over everything else and she was now fully invested in it, harbouring dreams of one day pulling on the green shirt at, say, a World Cup.

“I think I made the right choice in choosing hockey and would make the same one if I was going back again…I think,” she smirks.

“I think just playing and coming up with your friends is what makes it. We all go through the hard slogs, early mornings, late nights and tough times together. We’re like a family really and not a lot of teams really have what we have. It just makes it so worthwhile even if there has been pain along the way.”

A World Cup will be the pinnacle. Stepping out in front of family and friends, and the watching world. Ireland’s Call, the tri-colour, the appreciation of the journey. A dream come true.

“It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. It will be a dream come true, for sure.

The Ireland Women's Hockey Team at today's announcement The Ireland World Cup squad. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“One of the things I’ve learned this year is that these are the moments why you did what you did and why you sacrificed what you did. If you can’t enjoy walking out and having a smile on your face at a World Cup in London then there’s something wrong.

“We’ve worked hard to achieve this and there’s no pressure on us as the team ranked 15 out of 16. We’ve got the belief and confidence in our squad and we know we can cause real upsets. Teams won’t want to play against us, knowing the results we’ve achieved in the last couple of years.”

21 July, 6pm.

Ireland v USA, Pool B, Women’s Hockey World Cup.

“It just feels so real now,” Evans adds.

“We’re just focused on each game and seeing what we can do. We’ve worked so incredibly hard, and come along way as players and as a group.

“I can’t wait to see us performing on the world stage. It has been a long time coming.”

Sometimes, it just means more.

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‘These players give every single day of their lives to the sport. They deserve this’

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Ryan Bailey

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