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'This is our first Olympics so there's still an element that other countries will think of us as underdogs'

Chloe Watkins and the Irish women’s hockey team are aiming for another memorable summer.

IT’S ALMOST THREE years ago now since a certain team stole the hearts of the nation.

chloe-watkins Pictured is FBD Brand Ambassador and 2018 World Cup silver-medallist Chloe Watkins. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Irish women’s hockey team was the name on everyone’s lips after their World Cup heroics across the water in 2018. It was a special summer in London, one in which the Green Army shocked almost everyone but themselves by reaching the final.

They finished top of their group after wins over the United States and India, and bounced back from the slenderest of losses to England to stun both India and Spain on penalties, and book a final date with all-conquering Netherlands.

A heavy defeat there didn’t taint their incredible journey, having well and truly established themselves on the world stage and erased the heartbreak of past shortcomings.

With the entire country on their side ever since, they’ve only continued the upward trajectory by qualifying for their first-ever Olympic Games. There’s a real hype around this team with some added pressure and the tag of being history-makers, but they seem to take it all in their stride.

Chloe Watkins epitomises the group, having been there each and every step of the way through the highs and the lows, the success and the near misses, since making her debut as a teenager in 2010, and she explains how their tight-knit bond helps them deal with the added spotlight.

“Once we’re together with the squad, we’re a very grounded bunch,” she tells The42. “We just get into our own little bubble and work away at what we’re what we’re doing. For so many years we’ve been the underdogs, it’s hard to just shed that mindset straightaway.

“I think we still kind of feel… this is our first Olympics so there’s still an element that other countries will think of us as an underdog and that kind of thing. We’re extremely excited to play in our first Olympics and I think that hunger is going to show in our performances.

“We’re a higher-ranked team now, we’re up to eighth in the world — we’ve earned that position over the last few years and it’s still about enjoying the occasion and being able to put in good performances. We’re just gonna take it in our stride and still embrace the challenge that comes at us.”

They’ve proven themselves so many times under the spotlight since, whether that be in Olympic qualifiers or in recording their first-ever win over Great Britain in the recent SoftCo Series.

chloe-watkins-and-susannah-townsend Watkins facing GB recently. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The core of the team have been through so much together, and they back themselves 100% of the way.

“I suppose when we’ve been at it for so many years, knocking on the door and not quite getting there, you just learn so much about yourself and about ourselves as a squad and as a unit,” 29-year-old Watkins nods.

“When an opportunity like this presents, like the World Cup did, we know that we have to grab it with both hands. That’s exactly what our mindset was at the World Cup, it was to enjoy but as well, ‘We’ve actually worked hard enough to get here and we’re going to take this opportunity’ — and it will be no different now.”

That recent historic win over, and series draw with, Rio 2016 champions GB was huge for Watkins and her side, who also enjoyed a really positive camp in Spain earlier in the year.

As preparations for Tokyo — and for June’s European Championships — ramp up, there’s plenty to be optimistic about.

“It was really great to get a good result, but more importantly, the convincing performances,” Watkins says of the contests with the old enemy, who will also be in their pool at the Games along with Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and India.

“They were the most pleasing part of it for us. We’ve taken great confidence from that. We were really gunning for it. I think there was a real feeling that we could have beaten them once or twice in the last year or two, maybe those results just got away from us so there was definitely a real hunger within the squad to finally get that win over them.”

Recent success has only increased competition — “You couldn’t name a squad right now,” she nods — with standards being pushed ahead of an “interesting few months”.

Europeans come as the perfect test ahead of Tokyo, and also act as a World Cup qualifier for Sean Dancer’s side against the Dutch.

zoe-wilson-nicola-evans-and-chloe-watkins-celebrate Zoe Wilson (left), Nicky Evans and Watkins after qualifying for the Olympics. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Someone they’ll be without, however, is Zoe Wilson, another long-serving stalwart who suffered a cruciate injury against Spain.

“Zoe, as big a loss she is on the pitch, she’s an even bigger loss for us off the pitch because she was such a huge personality within our squad.

“It was just devastating when that happened. I know everybody was just so gutted for her. She is such a talented person and she has such an incredible attitude. She’s just a positive get-up-and-go girl, so we’ve no doubt she’s going to bounce back from this and come back even stronger.

“She has plenty of days in the green jersey ahead of her, she’s young and she’s incredibly talented. I have no doubt she’ll be back soon.”

On Dancer, who took over from Graham Shaw two years ago, Watkins adds: “Sean is is a very attacking-minded coach. He’s an Aussie but he comes from New Zealand, so they’re very much an all-attacking style over there.

“Traditionally we’d probably be more defensive and that’s what we relied on in the World Cup certainly — defence of set pieces. It’s kind of nice to have that change now and have a bit more of a free-flowing forward playing style. It’s just a different mindset so hopefully we’re adapting to that.”

She and her team-mates remain in “this full-time but we’re part-time limbo” with regards training and work, the south Dubliner conducting her accounting day job from home.

“We’re all very much trying to be full-time athletes at the moment,” Watkins, who previously played club hockey in Spain and Netherlands and has well over 200 caps for her country, notes.

chloe-watkins Watkins and her team-mates are ready for Tokyo 2021. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

No doubt it will all pay dividends come summer time as they take to the biggest stages in Europe and the world, and draw on their experience from London 2018 and the “exceptionally hot conditions”.

“Not staying too high and not getting too low,” is important, along with “managing your emotions once you get into the tournament, so it’s going to be a great experience for us to draw on.”

Unfortunately, there’ll be no friends or family watching on from the stands, with foreign supporters not be allowed to travel to Japan. 

“Of course, it’s disappointing,” Watkins concludes. “It’s more disappointing for our family and friends, I think that have been along on this journey with us over the last 10-plus years, finally having something exciting for them to attend and now they can’t.

“I think from the squad’s perspective we’re just so grateful that we can compete. We’re well used to being at matches with not that many spectators so it won’t be anything [different] for us. They’ll be watching at home and I’m sure they’ll be making the most of that opportunity.

“It will be broadcast so that’s great, but we’re just so excited to get out and compete.”

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2018 World Cup silver medallist Chloe Watkins is an FBD brand ambassador.

FBD Insurance is a principal sponsor to Team Ireland since September 2018. As part of its sponsorship, FBD is supporting Team Ireland’s Olympic hopefuls to enable them to focus on personal bests and breakthrough performances at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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