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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

'It's something we've all wanted to achieve and this is our chance'

Chloe Watkins and the Ireland women’s hockey team are within touching distance of their Olympic dream. There’s no going back now.

NOW THAT THEIR route to the promised land has been mapped out, the Ireland women’s hockey team have been able to narrow the focus this week, yet confirmation of their Olympic play-off opponents has only raised expectations and amplified the pressure.

Drawing 15th-ranked Canada for the two-legged tie in November was the best possible pairing for Ireland from Monday’s draw and, on the back of two near-misses and then their World Cup silver medal, the sense is that there is no better time to get over the final hurdle.

chloe-watkins Watkins pictured at UCD this week. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The wounds from those agonising defeats in 2012 and 2016 still run deep for those still involved, but for Chloe Watkins, the hope is that it will be a case of third time lucky as Sean Dancer’s side set their sights on a first Olympics in Tokyo.

A magical run to the World Cup final in London has certainly changed the landscape for Ireland and, most significantly, engendered belief and confidence within the squad that this is their time. There is no going back now.

A fifth-place finish at the recent European Championships ensured the Green Army maintained their top-10 world ranking and with it came the reward of a home draw as the road to Tokyo 2020 reaches its make-or-break juncture.

To back up the assertion that this team has managed to capture the nation’s attention, Hockey Ireland have shown admirable ambition in bringing the November qualifier to Donnybrook stadium, where they will install a roll-out pitch and hope 6,000 supporters cram into Energia Park on consecutive nights.

“We made history at the World Cup and the Olympics has been the one we’ve always chased,” Watkins says. “We’ve never qualified for an Olympics so for us, first and foremost, it’s our target and goal. It’s driving this group at the moment.

“I suppose every time we go out there we want to try and perform but we do know we have a special group of players and a great programme in place. The sky is the limit now and we’re really just got to go for this and get over the line.”

Dancer’s squad returned to training last weekend as they begin preparations for the back-to-back games against Canada, and the investment of Park Developments, in addition to the continued support of Softco, has brought the programme to a new level of professionalism.

The Park Developments bursary, introduced at the start of the summer, means the players can train as full-time athletes for three days a week and then hold down a part-time job for the rest of the week. For Watkins, she is currently combining her time in camp with a role in Mazars.

But, as November draws closer, the midfielder will take a month off work to ensure all her energies — both physical and mental – are focused on Canada and Ireland’s date with destiny. 

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She continues: “Park Developments coming on board has been a huge boost in combination with Softco. It has allowed us to train on a more full-time basis since July.

chloe-watkins Watkins hopes it will be third time lucky. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We’re already seeing huge improvements as a team because it’s just that contact time we never had before. Now we have the ability to do that and it’s all thanks to their support. That’s invaluable and certainly, over September and October, the programme we have in place will give us our best chance of qualifying.

“This will be my third attempt at an Olympics. Back in 2011, we were in a centralised programme but nothing compared to this level of professionalism. The training itself, we’ve had nothing of this kind of intensity.

“I know everyone’s bodies are in bits at the moment as we were just back yesterday. It’s certainly a new level that we’re playing to and that’s what we need as a group. Everything has been put in place and hopefully it’ll work.”

Those disappointments have been used to build an enviable team-spirit and bond within the dressing room, as was evidenced during last summer’s World Cup, where Ireland defied the odds and showed what can be done when the attitude is right.

“The World Cup has certainly given the group a new sense of belief and confidence that we can get the result on the big stage,” Watkins says.

What we learnt from our last experience was that you can push a team so far and we trained so hard but we didn’t get there. The reality is that you really have to push for it. You might think you’re in a good position but it’s a whole new level. It’s a really difficult process to get to an Olympics.

“But we’ve turned that into motivation. There have been some really big disappointments obviously but we’ve grown as a group and I think we’ve got a really good mix of experience and youth at the moment.

“People have been in the squad for 10 years. It’s something we’re all working towards and something we’ve always wanted to achieve. And this is our chance. When you’re with a group like this, you never know how many opportunities you’re going to get again so we have to make the most of them.”

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Ryan Bailey

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