Ireland run out of track but not out of ambition

Losing World Cup final to superior Netherlands team has not shaken their self-belief

Members of the Irish women's hockey team that won silver in the weekend’s World Cup Final celebrate their return to Ireland with a lot of singing and dancing. Video: Nick Bradshaw & Ronan McGreevy

 

Just as quickly as this Irish team rose from nowhere to the heights of a World Cup final, so too did they finally run out of track just as fast. That was Ireland’s last stinging lesson to take home from the Women’s World Cup final.

The masterful Dutch, with their athleticism and poise, showed Ireland that even in reaching a first-ever final there are other improvements to be made, things to do to try to compete with a Netherlands team that Ireland coach Graham Shaw saw “as miles better than anyone”.

In defeat Ireland have tried to see the final act as part of running drama over a fortnight that has redefined them in the public eye. The disappointment of six goals going in on such a grand stage as the London 2012 Olympic Park hurts all right.

But Ireland are looking at it pragmatically and, while Shaw knows this team have moved onward and upwards, the last time they faced the Dutch in the European Championships in 2013 they also lost 6-0.

He has not been afraid to ask questions and make demands on his team. Five years on and the Netherlands have moved forwards faster than anyone and have kept the same margin between themselves and Ireland. But Sunday was no time for self-recrimination.

While the Irish faces that walked into the locker-room after the match were doleful and in two minds of how they should be reacting because of the one-sided score, the context of the final was crucially important.

Transformed

The smiles were reluctant but the players had a sense of how they might have transformed their sport in Ireland in some way and given hope to younger players who might not have believed an Irish team could stray so far from their historical norms.

Shaw knows the group of players he has. They are “a real ambitious, driven group that have a self-belief that they can push any team in the world,” he said afterwards.

“Don’t judge us by today. That team [Netherlands] are miles ahead of everyone in the world today. That’s just the way it is and it was always going to be a difficult game. Judge us on a silver medal.”

While it was difficult to cultivate good karma from the Dutch doing what the Dutch can do with such apparent ease, Ireland leave re-energised and with renewed ambitions.

They know that conceding an early goal when Liedewij Welten turned and slightly mishit after seven minutes transformed the way the match would shape. They had hoped to instil doubt and make the Dutch nervous by holding them out for a longer period, but letting in the early goal achieved the opposite effect, and the world number one side relaxed. That was a significant shift.

This Irish team is better at holding sides than chasing them and although the 1-0 score for the first quarter was a decent return, the three goals in the second quarter for 4-0 closed the door on Ireland. From that there was no way back.

Expectations

Now the team will look forward to next summer’s European Championships in Antwerp, where the expectations will soar.

They will look to the qualification process for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. That challenge has also been aided with the World Cup run and, when the rankings are revised, Ireland are likely to be in the top 10, which will have a positive effect on the Olympic qualification process.

“The journey is a four-year cycle and the first one was the World Cup,” explained the Irish coach. “Now we’ve achieved that. We got a silver medal which is a huge achievement. We need to park it in a few months time after we’ve celebrated it and enjoyed it. That is important too.

I firmly believe that the talent is in this country . . . we need to do everything we possibly can to allow them to succeed

“The girls are a very, very ambitious and a very driven group of players and they want to . . . I’m telling you now when we catch up in September, October they will be setting their sights on qualifying for Tokyo.

“When we qualify for Tokyo then we will be setting our sights on medalling in Tokyo. That’s what we are aiming for. We are not aiming to compete, just to make up the numbers. We are aiming to achieve the best possible finish that we can.

“I firmly believe that the talent is in this country. I firmly believe that and we need to do everything we possibly can to allow them to succeed.”

Family and friends

That is also a theme to be taken home and not aired while the Irish women were still walking off the pitch after finally wading into the throngs of family and friends who had travelled to London to support.

Among them would have been Pembroke’s Emily Beatty, who had her bag packed with flags and face paint ready to come to London to support her team. She had just missed out on the final cut.

Instead she received a call on Sunday morning to come to London after Megan Frazer was deemed unfit to play. Beatty repacked her bag and played in a World Cup final a few hours later. In a week jammed with dramatic twists, that was just another.

Ireland leave bitten by the Dutch brilliance and panache but not bowed by it. They leave as bigger believers in themselves and what they can go on to do than when they first came a fortnight ago. So they should.

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