Success or not, the Irish team cannot stand still two years after London 2018. That’s the current thinking in the Irish women’s hockey squad, change by necessity from the side that reached the final of the World Cup two years ago.
In part it should be a natural process under the influence of New Zealand coach Sean Dancer, who took over from Ireland’s Graham Shaw just months after the historic run. Maybe, also the addition of a few new faces.
“It’s no different for every squad [to change],” says Róisín Upton. “Every single game is videoed and video analysis is huge with analysing teams. We saw that playing Canada. We had eight weeks to analyse one team. We knew all their names, their second names, their ages. It brought it to a whole new level. It will be like that for the Olympics. It’s the teams that are able to adapt the most. You have to have more than one trick up your sleeve.”
Ireland relied on solid defensive play and sharp counter attacking against the higher ranked sides they played in Olympic Park, as well as a hardened positive notion throughout the tournament. But the same play book that took them so far will be in danger of not working when the squad face their first ever Olympic Games in 12 months time.
Upton, the 26-year-old from Limerick, featured in all of Ireland’s matches throughout the tournament. In the opener against the United States, she provided an assist for Anna O’Flanagan and in the quarter-final against India was the first Ireland player to score in the penalty shootout.
“Because of the virus, we’re going to have more time with our head coach who was only appointed in 2019,” she says. “And it’s a completely different style of hockey that he brings from Oceania.
“It’s much more attacking and much more flair than our usual defensive style, so we’ll get to embrace that for another year and see how much we can improve.”
Ireland scored four goals in three matches in their pool games, one goal more than second placed England. The quarter-final match against India was scoreless and decided on a shootout, while the game against Spain in the semi-final was 1-1 before another shootout. Ireland didn’t score against the Dutch when they were beaten in the final for a tournament total of five goals from six matches played.
“I think we are trying to hang on to what we are good at,” says Upton. “We did win a silver medal off the back of a strong defence. At the same time we went in under the radar with no expectations. Teams will know us better.
“They will do their homework on us. We need to bring something new to the mix. I think the obvious point is to improve our offence as a whole team, being more threatening going forward, not going sideways and backwards. Sean has challenged us to create the game, to open it up and obviously to take our opportunities in the circle so it’s been really refreshing in that sense.”
It is hoped the first collective training session will go ahead in Dublin perhaps later this month with league games resuming in September and internationals in January. But as Government plans to contain the virus lean towards the conservative as cases increase the near future remains fraught.
Her job as a national school teacher, which was scheduled to begin in September, is now on hold for another year. There is the recognition that to best ensure a ticket to Tokyo next summer, a part-time commitment is simply not enough.
The squad have been training in regional pods only recently with Leinster, Ulster and Munster players meeting up in their own provinces.
“I think it’s [the one-year delay] a huge challenge for us and for every squad. The Olympics will show who is able to overcome the adversity,” says the former psychology student. “That’s a huge part of life isn’t it.
“If we can pull together…we are quite a tight knit group of girls…over the next few months. But our goals haven’t changed. We want to compete with the best in the world. You know, that adversity is the real making of you.”