There isn’t a player in Ireland unaware of the magnitude of the challenge the Irish women face in their first match of the European Championships in Amsterdam against host side Netherlands (2.30pm Irish time, Live RTÉ 2)
The Dutch are not just the best side in world hockey but one that has dominated the position for the last four years. For Ireland’s part, they have not beaten the Netherlands since 1963, long before the first Euro Hockey championships came into being.
The last time the sides met was at the 2018 World Cup final in London, where six goals went one way against Ireland, the Dutch emerging as worthy world champions.
Since then, Ireland have changed up the 18-player squad with 13 of the world silver-medal winning panel travelling to the Wagener Stadium. Deirdre Duke, a World Cup veteran, comes in as a late call-up with Sarah Torrans missing out on her first ranking tournament through injury.
The Dutch have lost just one fixture of any kind since London and also picked up the 2017 and 2019 European titles, which means they are now looking for three in a row. Of the 14 editions of the championships played since the first in Lille in 1984, the Dutch have won 10.
But Ireland are living in a new era of confidence and ambition after their World Cup run and beating Canada in 2019 to qualify for the summer Olympic Games for the first time.
“We are very driven and we don’t go into any game thinking we’re going to lose it,” said Ayeisha McFerran, twice a nominee for world goalkeeper of the year. “We’re not about that. Over the past couple of years, we’ve really developed so we never think ‘let’s keep the score down’.
“As an Irish team, we wanted to flip that mindset and go forward. We want to move up a ranking in the world and the only way to do that is by winning medals. First, though, we need to put in performances, myself included.”
The Irish side have also pointed to the better access they have to training facilities in Abbotstown, where the team is based, with fitness levels better than they have ever been.
Ireland will also meet the Dutch in the first match of the championships, whereas at the World Cup three years ago, it was in the final game, a place the team had never been before. There was an aspect of running out of road in London. Fresh legs they expect will count for something.
There are three World Cup places available and also four direct qualification spots for the 2023 European Championships, which moves to a new format after this event. Both of those ambitions would be likely achieved by Ireland with a first ever run to the semi-finals.
A pragmatic take would be to focus on the second and third games in the pool against Scotland and Spain, two sides Ireland have beaten this year as part of their build-up.
A win against Scotland on Monday is a must before the tougher challenge of Spain arrives on Wednesday. The winner of that match is likely to finish second in the pool and secure a semi-final spot. Spain, ranked seventh in the world to Ireland’s eighth, won the bronze medal at the 2018 World Cup.
UCD's Michelle Carey is expected to gain her first international cap, while her Belfield team-mate, Hannah McLoughlin, although capped 14 times ,will make her ranking tournament debut. Shirley McCay, at the other end of an outstanding career with 306 caps, plays in her eighth and final European Championships.
Ayeisha McFerran (SV Kampong, 100 caps) – GK, Lizzie Murphy (Loreto, 13) – GK, Michelle Carey (UCD, 0), Naomi Carroll (Catholic Institute, 111), Lizzie Colvin (Belfast Harlequins, 196), Nicci Daly (Loreto, 189), Nikki Evans (Old Alex, 198), Megan Frazer (Belfast Harlequins, 136), Sarah Hawkshaw (Railway Union, 33), Hannah Matthews (Loreto, 147), Shirley McCay (Pegasus, 306), Hannah McLoughlin (UCD, 14), Katie Mullan (Ballymoney, 193) – capt, Anna O'Flanagan (Muckross, 207) – vice-capt, Lena Tice (Old Alex, 109), Róisín Upton (Catholic Institute, 76), Chloe Watkins (Monkstown, 226), Deirdre Duke (Old Alex, 141).
Travelling reserves: Sarah McAuley (Muckross, 0), Zara Malseed (Ards, 0)
Fixtures (all times Irish)
Saturday, June 5th: Ireland v Netherlands, 2.30pm
Monday, June 7th: Ireland v Scotland, 11.30am
Wednesday, June 9th: Ireland v Spain, 11.30am
Friday, June 11th: Semi-finals/relegation pool
Saturday/Sunday, June 12th/13th: Medal matches/relegation pool