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Inpho Ireland are bidding to qualify for their first Olympics.
# Olympic qualifier
Home advantage key for Ireland on road to Tokyo but uncertainty remains over venue
Sean Dancer’s side will host Canada in November but the team still do not know where the two-legged tie will be played.

THERE WAS A somewhat anti-climactic feel to the moment Ireland discovered their Olympic qualifier path in UCD’s Student Centre on Monday lunchtime, but the reaction of the players confirmed they had been drawn the best possible hand.

Whether it was because it was the first day of the new semester on campus, or there were issues at the other end at the International Hockey Federation headquarters in Lausanne, the erratic livestream only added to the tension in the room. 

When the internet connection eventually decided to sort itself out and Ireland were drawn out of Pot 2 to face Canada in the Tokyo 2020 play-offs, there was momentary excitement and relief amongst the group before the players narrowed the focus on the ultimate goal.

After three months of waiting to find out who stands between them and a place at next summer’s Games, Sean Dancer’s side can now begin their preparations for a two-legged tie against Canada in Dublin on 2 and 3 November.

In many ways, it was the kindest draw for last summer’s World Cup silver medallists, with Canada — ranked 15th in the world — the lowest-ranked nation that Ireland could face, with Korea [11], Belgium [12] and USA [13] the other potential opponents. 

“Canada are a team that are progressing and that was evident when they beat USA,” head coach Dancer said. “They are certainly a team on the rise who will present us with some issues which we need to make sure we are ready for. But now we can put a plan in place.”

Defender Shirley McCay also offered her immediate reaction.

“Mixed feelings, maybe it was nervous excitement but just glad to finally know,” she said. “It has been a long time coming so it is good to have that focus for the next eight weeks.

“I would have gone for Canada or USA. The others would have been a huge test but we are under no illusions. Canada are on the rise and have defied the odds in recent years.”

While Ireland managed to avoid Korea, who defeated them in the FIH Series final in Banbridge back in June, and Belgium, the Green Army will be wary of the threat Canada — who reached the Pan-American Games final this summer — will pose in Dublin.

shirley-mccay Morgan Treacy / INPHO Shirley McCay at the Hockey Stadium in UCD following a Park Developments sponsorship event. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Just as it was in booking their ticket through to these play-offs, home advantage will be key for Dancer’s side as they bid to put to bed the heartache of the last two Olympic cycles and qualify for their first-ever Games.

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After a brief period of rest following the European Championships in August, Ireland returned to training at UCD on Sunday and will ramp up preparations for the two-legged play-off with a series against China in late September.

The support of Park Developments and primary sponsor Softco has allowed the extended squad come together on a semi-professional basis for three days of the week, before the players return to work or college for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

That extended contact time and window for recovery is a major fillip for Dancer’s squad in this lead-in period, although uncertainty remains over the venue for November’s qualifier.

Ireland are currently training on the new pitch at UCD — which is set to be officially opened on Wednesday evening — and the National Hockey Stadium is one of three venues currently being explored by Hockey Ireland to host the tie.

The new surface at the Sports Campus in Abbotstown is due to be laid in the coming days, while it has also emerged Hockey Ireland have looked into the possibility of fitting a drop-in pitch at Donnybrook, with an announcement to be made later in the week.

“From a planning point of view, I like to know well in advance rather than later so I hope it will be finalised soon so I can finalise our plans,” Dancer says.

It’s out of my hands. It’s one of the three locations in the mix at the moment and Hockey Ireland and the organising committee will make their decision on that in the near future.

With the players training at UCD, the obvious choice would be Belfield.

Dancer adds: “It’s nice to train at the venue and so on, to reinforce the home advantage, but it’s not my decision to make. Like the draw, it’s not up to me to decide — we’ll just turn up there, and be ready to perform without any excuses about venue, location, team or anything like that.

“Regardless of where we play, having home advantage is going to be massive for us.” 

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