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Ireland's 'new chapter' opens at do-or-die World Cup qualifiers after whirlwind summer

‘It’s quite a unique situation to be in, but these opportunities don’t come around very often,’ says Hannah McLoughlin.

2021 HAS BEEN nothing short of a whirlwind for the Irish women’s hockey team, and for one of their newest stars, Hannah McLoughlin.

From June’s Euro Hockey Championships in Amsterdam to their first-ever Olympic Games in Tokyo in July, a “new chapter” opens at next week’s crucial World Cup qualifying competition in Pisa.

hannah-mcloughlin-announced-as-davy-brand-ambassador Hannah McLoughlin at the National Hockey Stadium, UCD, Dublin at the announcement of her role as a Davy brand ambassador. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

All eyes will be on Italy’s western coast from 21 to 24 October, as eight nations battle it out for one spot at next summer’s major tournament in Spain and the Netherlands. The perfect way to move on with a new-look Ireland squad, after a changing of the guard post-Tokyo.

“It’s quite a unique opening to a new chapter when we’ve had to close the last chapter over the summer pretty quickly,” McLoughlin tells The42.

“Definitely in hockey, it’s quite unusual to have two big tournaments in a year, in a summer. The World Cup qualifiers have come around the corner pretty fast.

“The Olympics obviously is very well known for being the pinnacle of any sport, which it is, but it’s funny that out of the three tournaments, this is actually probably the most important for us in terms of it’s a stepping stone to get to a World Cup.

“It’s a funny situation to be in, but we’re extremely excited to have the opportunity to go out and play international hockey once again, but also to get a World Cup ticket. I mean, those situations don’t come around very often.”

Do-or-die, the tournament will be played on a knock-out format, with Sean Dancer’s Ireland the highest-ranked side going into it in 12th.

First up, they face lowest-ranked France, who sit 27th but are very much a team on the rise, next Thursday [10.30am, Irish time], with the winner progressing to face either Russia or Belarus, 20th and 21st respectively.

“It’s essentially going into a tournament and playing a quarter-final as your first match. You go, you could play one match, be knocked out and that’s you done,” 21-year-old McLoughlin nods.

With Scotland (19th), Poland (23rd), Italy (17th) and Wales (25th) on the other side of the draw, the winner of Sunday week’s final will land the golden ticket. McLoughlin is confident her side can get the job done.

“It’s pretty intense that it’s knockout. It’s three matches between us not qualifying or qualifying for a World Cup.

“It’s quite a unique situation to be in, but as I said, these opportunities don’t come around very often, and we’re trying to look at it in as positive light as it is: the only thing between us and a World Cup at the moment is three matches of hockey where we just need to bring the quality that we have, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be there.”

Dancer named an 18-player central panel and two travelling reserves earlier this week; a mixture of new faces and a hefty chunk of the Olympics squad.

Shirley McCay and Hannah Matthews were two who publicly announced their retirements from international hockey after the Games, and they’re named among a group of six that have ‘stepped back from the programme’.

hannah-mcloughlin-and-lizzie-holden McLoughlin and Lizzie Holden after defeat to The Netherlands at Tokyo 2020. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Tokyo was the end a cycle for a lot of people — and with the postponement of the Games for the year, a lot of people I think had wanted to retire; some did, some didn’t stay for the extra year,” McLoughlin, who plays her club hockey with UCD, where she studies Economics and Finance, continues.

“I think we always knew that that was going to happen and that we would have had to have this quite quick recycling and regeneration period in September, October to get ready for this tournament.

“But we’ve always had huge depth to our squad and a lot of talent to come through. It’s quite an exciting blend of more experienced players and also, some younger players that do and don’t have caps. It’s actually a really exciting period – although we’re really going to miss the girls that have stepped away and retired, but I suppose we have to go and do a good job for them as well as for ourselves.”

The Olympics postmortem has been put on ice, to an extent, as McLoughlin and Ireland focus on the next task at hand.

There was raw emotion in the Land of the Rising Sun after Ireland’s exit, the realisation that it was the end of the road for some of the group compounding the disappointment of defeat.

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McLoughlin spoke candidly about it in the immediate aftermath, and reviews the entire experience similarly a few months removed.

“I’m as best as I can trying to reflect on it in two lights: one light being from a sport, a performance and a very much on-pitch point of view, which I think I’m still very disappointed with how we did, not getting out of our group. I don’t think we played the best hockey we could have.

“But I suppose, I’m trying to keep that quite independent from my experience of the Games as a whole, which was absolutely incredible. The fact that it got postponed for the year and there was a long period of time where we had doubt about whether it would go ahead or what it would look like or what shape it would take, I think we just agreed to forget about that and said, ‘Look if this thing is going to go ahead in the summer, we’re just going to go, we’re going to have no expectations about what’s going to be there, what’s not going to be there, and just go out, play hockey, and enjoy it.’

“To be honest, I think we did that pretty well and I think it was actually quite a powerful mindset to have going in to something where there were so many unknowns – just to not get stressed about all the uncontrollables, but I think it is separating that performance and outcome reflection which there is still disappointment in versus the overall experience.

“We’ve tried to debrief what we did well, what we didn’t do so well and really bring that through to October and realise that we have enough talent in the locker, we have enough of everything in the locker to really go play well at this tournament and qualify in our own right. I think that’s actually quite an exciting space to be in at the moment.”

- A feature on Hannah McLoughlin will follow on The42 this weekend

Hannah McLoughlin was speaking at the announcement of her role as a Davy brand ambassador. Davy is proud to support young Irish athletes.. Davy is proud to support young Irish athletes.

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Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss depth in Munster, Nathan Doak’s Ireland prospects, and whether rugby is survival of the richest on The42 Rugby Weekly


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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