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Working part-time to fully commit to Ireland and adjusting to travel protocols ahead of crucial summer

The Ireland women’s hockey team will start their European Championship campaign this weekend.

THE NEXT FEW months are a crucial stretch for the Ireland women’s hockey team.

irish-players-celebrate-qualifying-for-the-2020-tokyo-olympics Ireland are back in action Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The European championships, which start today, is the first major event they have competed in since their dramatic two-legged Olympic qualifier against Canada in 2019.

They’ve played in series matches already this year, but the Europeans is the culmination of all those outings.

In case you needed a brief reminder of that Olympic qualifier, Ireland edged out that contest after a tense penalty shootout to book tickets to their first-ever Olympic Games.

That tournament is hopefully coming up in July. But for now, the continental games are their main priority.

There are two significant carrots on offer at the Europeans. A top-three finish will ensure qualification for the next World Cup in 2023, while Ireland has never reached the semi-finals of the European championship.

Ireland will go into their Group A games against the Netherlands, Scotland and Spain without some key members of the squad. Both of the twin Barr sisters, Bethany and Serena, have torn their ACLs as has Zoe Wilson.

Nikki Evans, who is set to earn her 200th cap at the Europeans, says their absence is keenly felt in the Ireland camp.

“It has been extremely difficult and tough on the squad losing some massive faces, not just on the pitch, but big characters off the pitch.

“It’s been extremely tough on them as well. But injuries are a part of sport unfortunately and I’ve no doubt those girls have a bright international future ahead of them and they’ll come back stronger than ever.”

Group A will present some tough assignments for the Green Army. The Netherlands, who Ireland faced in the 2018 World Cup final, are the number one ranked team in the world.

Push-back for that game later today is at 2.30pm, with RTÉ 2 providing live coverage from 2pm.

Spain are one spot above Ireland in the world rankings and another side who they battled against in the World Cup.

After today’s opener against the Dutch, Ireland have a quick two-day turnaround for facing down Scotland on 7 June before rounding off the group stage against Spain on 9 June.

The semi-finals and relegation battles follow on June 11 with the final pegged in for Saturday 13 June. That amounts to just over a week of intense competition to get a measure of where Ireland are at ahead of the Olympics.

“The Europeans is massively important for this team, the future of Irish hockey and to get that ticket for the World Cup next year automatically makes it a really big competition,” says Evans.

“We were chatting last week in camp about it and the Europeans is one of the toughest if not the toughest competition on the hockey calendar with the way the tournament is formatted – five games in seven days with five or six teams in the top eight teams in the women’s competition based in Europe makes it an extremely difficult competition.

“We know from the past how cutthroat it is and we’re looking forward to the challenge. I know the girls will relish the opportunity.”

nikki-evans Ireland's Nikki Evans. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With so much at stake, the players in Seán Dancer’s squad have elected to make changes in their working life to give their full commitment to the Irish shirt. Anna O’Flanagan previously referred to their status as “full-time athletes on part-time wages” while also revealing that she was taking a step back from the full-time demands of her work as a solicitor.

Ireland captain Katie Mullan works as a biomedical engineer in Belfast and she too has made the move to put Ireland at the forefront of her priorities.

“Since the beginning of Covid, I’ve been working and then only in the last month, I’ve stepped away just to give everything to hockey in the build-up to the Europeans and the Olympics.

“And then I have to think beyond that in September and filling back into work and stuff. It’s just that constant battle to get the right balance but right now, yeah all the eggs are in the hockey basket for me. That’s the same across our entire squad at the moment.”

Evans adds that the increased contact time at training is starting to produce improvements in the team now.

“We’re fortunate and grateful that our preparations can continue. There’s a good buzz in the squad with the summer being so close and that tournament being in touching distance.

“Being able to train part-time with the national team and work part-time maybe at the back end of the week. Or some coaching in the clubs. For the students to be able to split their degrees has definitely given us more of an opportunity to have more contact time together.

“You can really see it in the players coming through the ranks and the level of training we’ve been able to reach over the last couple of months.”

The efforts that this team — who are World Cup silver medalists — are making in order to fulfill their sporting obligations raises questions about funding, or lack thereof.

It was announced last month that female GAA players across camogie and Ladies Football are set to earn parity of state funding with their male counterparts.

This means the current amount will treble to €2.4 million this year. And while that’s an encouraging and significant development for players in Gaelic Games, it suggests that there is inadequate funding being directed towards other sports in Ireland.

“I suppose my initial thought was that,” says Mullan when asked if that injection of funding in GAA has led to an inequality in funding elsewhere.

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“Is it more money being put into the GAA to create equality or should it have been more of a split of the money that was already there, just to ensure that sport across Ireland is being funded?

“I think if you look at the results across several sports in the past few months, Irish sport is going incredibly well and you look at the results in athletics and rowing and everything that’s gone on has been world class.

“We’re competing on the world stage across many sports so it’s important that all of those sports get the funding and the support across the board in order to continue to bring back those results. It’s something we always talk about, we don’t want to go to one Olympics, we don’t want to go to one World Cup.

“It’s about the legacy and ensuring that we’re always playing at the majors and I’m sure a lot of those other sports will be the same given their recent successes.”

katie-mullan-warm-up Ireland captain Katie Mullan. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of international travel, which in turn has had a knock-on effect for sports like hockey.

Since the Ireland team was covered by elite status during the Level 5 restrictions, they have been permitted to train throughout the pandemic. They’ve also been able to build in some important game time into their programme through a combination of series competitions and training camps abroad.

Becoming familiar with the travel protocols has been an important exercise in gearing up for this trip to the Netherlands.

“Yeah, it’s been massive,” says Mullan.

“To get the experience that we did in January and as early as January, we were ahead of the curve than a lot of other nations and we’ve learned an awful lot from that around our own protocols and how we need to interact in the best and safest sense for the team in terms of Covid.

“We’ve learned an awful lot from our experiences and we’re very grateful that we got them because other nations that have an awful lot more money and funding than we do haven’t got the same experiences that we have so it’s been brilliant for us.

“Again, it’s something we will take confidence in now moving towards the Europeans and knowing how we want to function. Of course, everyone knows this group is all about being together and having the craic.

“I suppose finding ways to do that over the past few months while still being safe from a Covid perspective has been a new challenge for us but something that we’re really relishing now.”

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