O'Flynn and co taking Irish hockey to new levels


THE IRISH TIMES/IRISH SPORTS COUNCIL SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR AWARD FOR MARCH:Audrey O’Flynn takes pluses from the Irish hockey team’s failure to qualify for the Olympics, writes MARY HANNIGAN

AUDREY O’FLYNN had a déjà vu moment when she was sitting in front of her television in Dripsey, Co Cork, on Sunday afternoon, Munster’s nightmarish start against Ulster in their Heineken Cup quarter-final calling to mind her last experience on a hockey pitch.

“It brought it all back alright, we were both left with too big a mountain to climb,” she said, the Irish team’s concession of three goals in seven minutes to Belgium in their Olympic Qualifier final last month all but ending their hopes even before half-time.

Immediately after the game, in which O’Flynn scored her eighth goal in five matches, all from short corners – a consolation score, as it proved, in a 4-1 defeat – she could take little comfort from the team’s achievement of reaching its first Olympic qualifying decider, nor her own status as tournament top scorer. “We might as well have come last,” she said.

Two and a half weeks on she’s able to view the campaign in a more positive light, even if the pain of missing out on London 2012 has not eased. “And there were plenty of positives for us, often in the past we slipped up against teams ranked below us, but this time we beat France, Russia and Mexico comfortably enough. And then beating Spain was the big one for us, I don’t think we’d ever beaten them in a tournament at this level before.”

“We put so much in to it, all those mornings getting up at six, all the training in the cold and wet, it was tough. But the prize of a place in the Olympics was what kept us going, and it was worth every minute of the effort.

“We know we didn’t play to our potential in the final, and that was the most disappointing thing, but it’s rare to win these games at your first attempt. Belgium lost their Beijing qualifying final to the USA four years ago, and that experience stood to them – they succeeded second time around. We just have to hope we can on to do the same thing.”

It’s just over two years since the 25-year-old made her senior debut, against Belgium of all people, and in that time she’s amassed over 60 caps, an indication of how crammed a schedule the international team has had in that spell.

A new era is about to begin, though, following the resignation of coach Gene Muller after the qualifier, and Flynn is unsure what the future will hold.

“We’ll wait and see what happens,” she said, “you don’t know what changes the new coach will make,” but if time allows she would like to add to her caps haul. Come May she hopes to have qualified as a primary school teacher, after that she’ll see where life takes her.

And come May she hopes to be eating solid food again. In the pool game against Spain she was struck in the face by the ball, but despite huge discomfort went on to play in the final. It was only when she returned home that she discovered her jaw was fractured.

“Another two weeks on liquids and then I should be fine,” she said. “I had a plate inserted, and a wisdom tooth taken out because there was a chance it would become infected. It was sore at the time alright but you get on with it.”

So that’s her season done? “Ah no,” she said, “I’ll be allowed back mid-May, so if Hermes reach the closing stages of the Irish Hockey League I’ll be there.

“The funny thing is, because all the players had to look after their weight, we promised ourselves we’d have a pizza when it was over. But then I wasn’t able to eat one, liquids only. I’ve been living on mashed salmon, mashed potatoes, beans, ice cream, soup. I used to love soup.”

Now? She hopes it never darkens her door again.

Monthly awards so far

(This year’s awards cover December 2011 to November 2012)

December: Fionnuala Britton (Athletics). The Wicklow runner emulated Catherina McKiernan’s 1994 European Cross Country Championship success by winning gold in Slovenia.

January:Jessica Kurten (Equestrian). After a difficult year, when she lost her most experienced horses following a dispute with their owner, Kurten bounced back with her first major Grand Prix victory in 12 months.

February:Fiona Coghlan (Rugby). Coghlan captained Ireland to their most impressive Six Nations’ campaign yet, the team comfortably beating Wales, Italy and Scotland, only losing by a point away to France and holding England level at half-time in their Triple Crown match before the champions pulled away in the second half.