Hannah Matthews and Ireland ready for their Olympics bow

Opening fixture against South Africa on Saturday is a must-win for Games debutants

Ireland’s Hannah Matthews with Maria Verschoor of the Netherlands. Photograph: Inpho

Ireland’s Hannah Matthews with Maria Verschoor of the Netherlands. Photograph: Inpho

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“This is all very new to us. We have never been to an Olympics before,” she says. Now Hannah Matthews is at an Olympics. She’s here in Tokyo, at the Oi Hockey Stadium. It’s been an on, off, on kind of path. But it’s here, it’s now.

Her words seem, if not mildly defensive then cautious as Ireland face South Africa in the first of their pool matches on Saturday, an historic game as a first and firsts are always something. Saturday is a collective leap into what was previously just hockey dreamland.

But feet on the ground is what’s required. There’s a lot riding on the Irish performance. Bolters at the last World Cup in London 2018, the only glimpse the wider public seems to have had of the Irish team is as a singing and dancing troupe out shooting down bigger teams on their way to a World Cup final.

“We are one of the few teams in the tournament that haven’t been to an Olympics before and we are also going into a climate that we are not very used to,” she says.

It is all true. As the virus hit, a planned warm weather trip and series of matches in Malaysia were cancelled and Ireland was left to make do with hot steam rooms in Dublin.

The team also had a European Championships that didn’t pan out as they had hoped and the wonder is whether an inkling of doubt has crept into thinking.

But Ireland are experts at bucking the rankings. Matthews seems less doubtful of the team form and more aligned with winning percentages on any given day, coming out of the right side of the margins in Tokyo.

We’re ranked eighth in the world. It’s not like we are up in the top five. I’d say we are relatively under the radar

That phrase ‘on the day’ has become something of a team chant. They can beat anyone on the day and they will live with that hopeful spirit that guided them so richly three years ago.

“South Africa and India are probably our closest in terms of ranking,” says the 30-year-old. “But in tournament hockey anything can happen. So it’s managing our emotions as we go.

“I think we definitely feel disappointed,” she says about the Euros. “We felt like we didn’t represent how well we have been playing and how well we have been training.

“That was definitely a frustration. But put it in context and the Europeans are a brutal tournament. You just can’t afford to make mistakes and you are playing against quality sides so I think we can take a lot of positives.

“We’ve had just the best preparation for the Olympics you could ask for and we’ve seen the mistakes we’ve made and we can work on them. So we have a lot to improve on and we know that now.”

Chloe Watkins, Hannah Matthews and Anna O’Flanagan celebrate Ireland’s qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Chloe Watkins, Hannah Matthews and Anna O’Flanagan celebrate Ireland’s qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

At 16 in the world, South Africa are ranked lower than Ireland’s eighth. As ever nothing but a win will do if Ireland have ambitions to advance.

After South Africa, they face the Dutch world number one side. A win from the first two matches is a platform for the challenge of their third Pool A match against Germany, the third best side in the world.

“There are 12 teams in the tournament,” says Matthews. “We’re ranked eighth in the world. It’s not like we are up in the top five. I’d say we are relatively under the radar but not as much as in the World Cup. Teams would definitely be more aware of us.”

A school teacher, Matthews has had to take a career break after job sharing last year. She wasn’t able to take up part time contract so she has thrown her all into Tokyo.

She parked the career and it has worked the way she had hoped. In the preparation before arriving in Tokyo almost two weeks ago she discovered what it was like to live the life she was supposed to as a full-time athlete.

So it’s really important the team sticks to our culture. That’s something that comes very naturally to us so we won’t over think that

“Bizarre,” she says. “You are used to being on the go all the time and then all of a sudden you are resting and doing the things you should have being doing. It’s just a weird feeling, a little bit anxious that you should be doing something.

“It’s taken so much pressure off me and allowed me to commit completely to the program and not be running from gym to work to training to coaching so it’s been a real blessing in disguise.”

She will find how much of a blessing on Saturday and how much of that famous team spirit Ireland nurtured and called upon in London remains intact. There are a few new faces, Sarah McAuley, Hannah McLoughlin, Zara Malseed and Michelle Carey.

But much of the older ones from the World Cup remain. They have an inkling what’s in store, Matthews as much as any of the others.

“Team spirit is massive. A long time in such close quarters,” she says. “It’s an intense tournament and with Covid restrictions as well. So it’s really important the team sticks to our culture. That’s something that comes very naturally to us so we won’t over think that.”

The top four most successful teams - Netherlands, Australia, Germany and current champions GB - have won 17 of the available 30 Olympic medals, the rest of the nations combining for 13 medals. Netherlands and Australia have won gold three times each.

South Africa then, in an empty stadium should, could, must represent a winning start.

“We’ve all plenty of experience of playing in front of absolutely no one,” says the Irish defender in self-deprecation. “It’s something we are used to. I don’t think it will affect us. We’ll be fine.”

Switched on and understated. Ready to go one more time.

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