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'It is difficult to come off the high of the World Cup. It’s something you don’t address'

The Ireland women’s hockey team are chasing Olympic qualification after facing challenging times in recent months.

IRELAND HAVE BEEN WAITING for this week to arrive.

gillian-pinder-anna-oflanagan-hannah-matthews-elena-tice-and-sarah-hawkshaw Ireland are ready to secure qualification for their first-ever Olympics. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The mission is simple: come out the winning side of a two-legged qualifier against Canada and secure a spot at their first-ever Olympic Games.

The Green Army have been in this position before. In more recent times, they tried to reach the London 2012 Olympics, and launched another attempt for Rio four years later.

They came particularly close in the latter campaign when they took on China in a World Hockey League quarter-final in 2015. After playing out a 1-1 draw, the battle was decided by a shootout with a ticket to Rio on the line.

Ireland fell short as China prevailed 4-3. The Olympic dream had eluded them once again.

So as Sean Dancer’s charges prepare to welcome Canada this Saturday and Sunday evening at Energia Park in Donnybrook, they have nothing but Tokyo 2020 on their minds.

“We have always said we have the ability to leave a legacy behind us,” says Ireland star Anna O’Flanagan.

“As we come into this week, though, we have to quieten our minds and focus on what is coming up. Absolutely, we want to create history but this week is about staying calm and staying in the moment.

anna-oflanagan-and-elena-tice Ireland's Anna O'Flanagan and Elena Tice. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s been a long time coming and we just wanted the team to be selected. It was obviously extremely tight and we have a very strong 24-player squad now but we are glad we have made it this far and absolutely buzzing.”

The big stage is no stranger to this hockey team. Irish audiences watched them defy the tag of being the second-lowest ranked team at the 2018 World Cup to reach the final in London.

Ironically, they excelled in the shootouts on that occasion as they pipped both India [quarter-final] and Spain [semi-final] to set-up a clash with the Netherlands in the decider. That game was more one-sided, but Ireland still returned home to a hero’s welcome with silver medals around their necks.

“It has just been really busy and mad and surreal,” says Gill Pinder as she recalls that memorable time.

Whenever we came back from London last summer and the reception we got, it has just been a whirlwind of things we hadn’t expected, and the opportunities they have opened up for us.”

Fans poured onto the streets for the big homecoming in Dublin while the players gathered on stage to serenade the crowds with their rendition of ‘All I Want For Christmas.’

That song became an anthem for them as it captured their feeling about dreams coming true at the World Cup.

the-ireland-team-celebrate-on-stage-682018 The Irish team on stage during their World Cup homecoming. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

As they had hoped, their achievement left a lasting impact, and hockey’s popularity soared in Ireland. 

It seems to be all the way from grassroots up, clubs saying they have waiting lists for new members,” O’Flanagan explains.

“There has definitely been a massive increase and even new clubs coming out of the woodwork. That’s brilliant for us to see.

“People are so nice and thank us for the memories, wishing us the best of luck for the Olympic qualifiers but it’s not too mad.”

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As results go, Ireland come into this Olympic qualifier in good shape.

Their fifth-place finish at the recent European Championships equalled their highest-ever finish at the competition, and the result maintained the top-10 world ranking they earned on the back of their heroics in London.

Preparations for the arrival of the Canadians seem to be progressing well too, but there have been some bumps over the last year.

gillian-pinder Gillian Pinder says home advantage will be key for Ireland. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Losing former head coach Graham Shaw was certainly a big one. His shock decision to step down in March, just three months before the start of the Olympic qualifying tournament, was a huge disappointment.

Sean Dancer has since taken charge to steady the ship, but when asked if things unravelled slightly in the last year, O’Flanagan replies:

As players, it is difficult to come off the high of the World Cup. It’s something you don’t really address.

“You get to that high and you can’t stay at that high for 15 or 16 months. Performances didn’t really go well but it wasn’t a major stress for us. We always knew the big matches would be in November – we wanted to bring through new players, which happened, and there are so many of them in the squad now.

When we got Sean Dancer in, it has been incredible. He has brought us to a new level in terms of professionalism and added to what Graham and Darren [Smith] had done. It was bumpy for a while but we have bedded down well, going into more of a full-time structure.

“It’s been a rollercoaster for sure.” 

Their achievement at the World Cup has put the Irish women’s hockey team at the centre of the public conscience. People will be watching with interest to see how the two games against Canada unfold.

That brings a certain amount of pressure to perform, but the players invite all that sense of expectation.

Their double-header against Canada comes just one week after their male counterparts crashed out of Olympic qualification after a controversial defeat to the same opposition.

“I think everyone was watching it over Saturday and Sunday,” says Pinder about the result. “Gutted for them in the end.”

a-view-of-the-artificial-pitch-being-laid Getting the pitch ready at Energia Park. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Irish hockey fans will be craving some good news this weekend, and the Green Army are eager to deliver on that promise in front of a packed crowd in the 6,000-capacity venue in Donnybrook.

A special roll-out pitch is being installed at Energia Park this week and Pinder is just eager for Saturday’s 7pm push back to arrive.

“It is going to make a huge difference,” she says of the importance of home advantage as they look to create history.

“We haven’t been on the pitch yet, it is just being rolled out. Both ourselves and Canada will have equal time to train and get used to it.

“To have the support will be great. It was key for us last year over in London at the World Cup, and to have that on our back door will be huge.”

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