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'This is what we've been pushing for': Irish hockey is finally having its Olympic moment

After near misses in 2008 and 2012, the Irish hockey team are ready to make their mark in Rio.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

– Sinéad O’Carroll reports from Rio de Janeiro

THEY WALKED INTO the Athletes’ Village in Barra de Tijuca last Thursday in awe of those around them.

Sitting beside Rafael Nadal and Sonny Bill Williams at lunch – champion sportsmen and bona fide celebrities both. Then, Katie Taylor asking can she borrow your weighing scales.

“Surreal” is the word that Eugene Magee, one of Ireland’s most experienced hockey players, uses.

It was incredible walking into the Athletes’ Village and being around so many famous people.

After more than 200 caps (including two near-misses of Olympic qualification in 2008 and 2012) with Ireland, the Banbridge 30-year-old has earned his place in the Village as much as the Rafas and Sonnys of this world have.

And that moment of realisation came as he and his teammates entered the Olympic Hockey Centre in Deodoro at the weekend.

The striking blue surface, a familiar field in the centre of the madness of the Games. There is a job to be done.

I think the biggest kicker was walking into this arena, into the hockey pitch and seeing where you were going to be playing your Olympic Games. It really hit home for us, what we have been trying for and what we have been pushing for. Now that we’re here, it’s just amazing.

Ireland prepare to take on Australia in a warm-up game Source: inpho.ie

The initial excitement was quickly tempered, its energy channelled into a bigger cause.

Bronze medallists in last year’s European Championships, this summer’s second Boys in Green are not in Rio for the Carnival.

Irish men’s hockey – one of the most experienced yet exciting set of players any field sport could put together – is having a moment.

They are the first Irish hockey team to qualify for an Olympics since 1908 and the first team from Ireland to make the cut in any sport in almost 70 years.

As they came off the Olympic field on Wednesday night after an (intense) practice match against favourites Australia, there was a palpable atmosphere of belief and a subtle vibe of the ‘Yes We Cans’.

Ireland's Peter Caruth competing against his Australian counterpart during a warm-up game Peter Caruth in action during a warm-up game against Australia on Wednesday night. Source: inpho.ie

Speaking to The42, Peter Caruth explains that a plan was put in place and the team adhered to every tactic.

“We did some good things, we need to work on a few others, but overall we put in a very good performance there,” he continued.

With an average age of just over 28, the experience of the 16-man squad is telling. (At just 24 years of age, Dubliner Kyle Good has racked up 66 caps for his country. Shane O’Donoghue, 23, has 50 goals from 99 caps. And Kirk Shimmins at 22, the youngest of the pack, has played 68 times since his debut four years ago.)

All those years and all those caps add up to a stable set-up, an ability to see what’s important as Usain Bolt passes you in the corridor and a will to make your talent count. 

The road to Rio was paved with fundraising drives and – for some – ‘normal’ working weeks. The team has a now oft-talked about ‘No Excuses’ mantra which has brought the group closer together despite the obvious obstacles facing those excelling in a so-called minority sport.

“It’s not an ideal situation but it’s something we have got used to. Not that we want to get used to but we’ve got used to it and we’ve overcome that barrier,” says Caruth.

Irish hockey is having a moment. The world might find out about it on Saturday. 

Ireland play India on Saturday at 3pm and the Netherlands on Sunday at 10pm (Irish time). 

Meet Ireland’s Olympic Team: Men’s hockey

How are Ireland preparing for the Olympics? A day in the life of hockey captain David Harte

The good, the bad, and the dodgy: Irish hockey stars tell us all about their Olympic team-mates

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