Much at stake as Ireland women’s hockey team enters semi-finals

Triumph over Japan in Johannesburg would keep their World Cup 2018 dream alive

Kuala Lumpur, Berkshire, Dusseldorf, Pennsylvania, Berlin, and now Johannesburg. Too many air miles to count. And that’s just been the Irish hockey squad’s travel since the start of the year. If they upset the odds in South Africa over the next fortnight they’ll be off to Auckland in November, but not before an August trip to Amsterdam for the European Championships.

You wouldn’t want to have a fear of flying, then, if you’re a member of Graham Shaw’s squad, although the travelling has gone smoothly enough – apart from their coach breaking down on the way to training in Johannesburg last Saturday. That wouldn’t have been any great problem if the players hadn’t been hoping to get to a television in time to see the second half of the Lions’ efforts in Wellington.

“We’d seen the first half, but when the bus broke down we had to follow the second on Twitter, so we missed all the excitement,” says Hannah Matthews. And while hockey might be the 26-year-old Dubliner’s first love, coming from a family steeped in rugby she could hardly escape an interest in the sport – her father Phillip captained Ireland in close to half of his 38 caps and her grandfather Kevin Flynn made 22 appearances for his country, the bulk of them in the 1960s.

It’ll be a busy Saturday morning for the clan, then, all eyes at first on Auckland for the decider against the All Blacks, and then a switch over to BT Sport for live coverage of Ireland’s opening game of the World League semi-finals against Japan (11am Irish time), in which Matthews will earn her 81st international cap.



The tournament acts as a qualifier for two events: the World League final in New Zealand in November and, the bigger prize, the 2018 World Cup in London. Matthews was 11 the last time Ireland qualified for a World Cup, but with the tournament now expanded to 16 teams, from 12 in 2014, bridging that gap seems attainable.

With seven of the 10 nations competing in Johannesburg ranked above Ireland in the world list, a top-five finish, which would guarantee a place in the World Cup, is hardly assured, but depending on the outcome of the five continental championships, as low as eighth could yet suffice.

Pool A, with world rankings in brackets, is made of England (2), Germany (7), Japan (11), Ireland (15) and Poland (18), with Argentina (3), the United States (6), South Africa (13), India (12) and Chile (20) making up pool B.

Only a top-four placing would ensure qualification for the World League final, but Shaw has made it clear that making it to the World Cup is “our number one goal”.

“And we have confidence in ourselves that we can do it,” says Matthews, who plays her club hockey with Loreto. “We’ve shown in the build-up that when we’re at the top of our game we can compete with anyone.”

Friendly run-outs they might have been, but out of the five top 10 ranked nations they played during that build-up, Ireland picked up a draw against the United States and rare wins over Germany and Korea.

“We know you can’t take much from results in games like that, and they will mean nothing if we don’t qualify for the World Cup, but you can take confidence from them and a belief that we’re capable of taking on the likes of Germany if we’re on top of our game.

“The best thing about the build-up was the quality of teams we played, none of them outside the top 10, so playing at that standard can only bring you on as a team. And getting to play Korea and China was especially valuable when we have Japan in our pool, we don’t often get to play Asian sides so that was good preparation for us.”

Packed with experience

What Ireland won’t lack in South Africa is experience, Shaw’s 18-strong squad is packed with it. Eight of the players have well over 100 caps, including captain Katie Mullan, an all-rounder who has played camogie for Derry, and Shirley McCay who is on 239, making her the most capped Irish woman in team sport.

Another five players have passed the 50-cap mark, Limerick’s Roisin Upton the least experienced of the group – but even she has played for her country on 15 occasions. And close to half of the squad have played club hockey abroad, in the United States, Spain, Germany and Belgium, so they have experience too of competing in top-class leagues.

Matthews only made her senior debut three years ago, but that 80-cap haul is an indication of just how many games the team packs in. “When you say three years it sounds so little,” she laughs, “but yeah, we play a lot of hockey. It’s always a challenge organising your life around it, especially for the people who have to hold down a full-time job while playing internationally, but luckily there are some bosses who are really understanding of our situation.”

“I’m a primary school teacher so I was able to just sub this year, taking so much time out wasn’t really an option, so that gave me the time to commit to Ireland. It is a real challenge, you have to be very organised and let your employers know your schedule well in advance, but even though it can be hard I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a lot of matches, but that’s what it’s going to take to get us to the next level – that and some extra funding, which would be great.”

Less taxing

With Johannesburg also hosting the men’s World League semi-finals, Ireland in the line-up for that tournament too, the format this time around is less taxing with at least one rest day between each of the games. After playing Japan on Saturday, Ireland take on Germany on Monday (1.0), Poland on Wednesday (1.0) and England on Sunday week (1.0), before the start of the classification matches the following Tuesday. All of the games will be broadcast live by BT Sport.

And the team will hardly be home when they’ll be preparing for the European Championships where they will compete in the A division of the event for the first time since 2013.

“No time to catch your breath,” says Matthews, “but it’s really exciting, we wouldn’t have it any other way. You find when you stop it’s hard to get going again, so it’s better that we’re on this roll. If South Africa goes well we can take that momentum into the Europeans, but for now our only focus is Japan on Saturday.” With, maybe, one eye on the 2018 World Cup.

Schedule (Irish times):

July 8: Ireland v Japan, 11.0

July 10: Ireland v Germany, 1.0

July 12: Ireland v Poland, 1.0

July 16: Ireland v England, 1.0

July 18-23: Classification matches

Squad: K Mullan (capt), L Tice, G Pinder, D Duke (all UCD), A O’Flanagan, S Loughran, N Evans, C Watkins (all Hermes-Monkstown), H Matthews, L Colvin (both Loreto), R Upton, Y O’Byrne (both Cork Harlequins), G O’Flanagan (Railway Union), Z Wilson (Harvestehuder, Germany), S McCay (Ulster Elks), N Daly (Muckross), E Beatty (KHC Dragons, Belgium), A McFerran (University of Louisville).

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times