Joanne O’Riordan: Do-or-die weekend for Ireland hockey

Women’s team bid to seal their Olympic dream when they take on Canada

Shirley McCay: set to make a landmark 300th appearance for Ireland when they  take on Canada in a bid to qualify for the Olympics. Photograph: Joe Toth/Inpho

Shirley McCay: set to make a landmark 300th appearance for Ireland when they take on Canada in a bid to qualify for the Olympics. Photograph: Joe Toth/Inpho

 

Hockey remains high-profile next weekend as crucial Olympic qualifiers beckon for Ireland.

The men’s team were unsuccessful in pretty egregious circumstances last weekend – with no thanks given to the video referees.

Careers were finished, tears were shed, but Hockey Ireland’s disappointment must soon dissipate, as the women’s team are looking to right their own wrong from four years ago.

While the Canadian men and video referees broke Irish hearts over the weekend in a sport we are only coming to terms with now, Donnybrook is the place to be for the weekend, as Ireland women’s team take on Canada over a two-legged series on Saturday and Sunday.

After a stellar year from an Irish perspective, which saw the team pick up a World silver medal in London in 2018, Ireland and Canada have both got their own trials and tribulations. From heartache in Valencia to Canadian financial struggles, this contest isn’t just a battle for the Olympics.

It’s a competition that’ll erase the heartbreak and turbulence of 2015, earn respect for women’s teams in both nations and add one name to hockey history books.

In 2015, despite beating the highly-ranked USA and South Africa in their pool, Ireland seemed destined for some success and set to write their name in the history books as this country’s first ever hockey team to appear at an Olympics. In Valencia, however, they were not as fortuitous as their hard work might have suggested.

We all remember it. Ireland failed to score from 12 penalty corners, and on their 13th they were unable to take the lead after the referee overruled the original goal from Megan Frazier after it hit a foot along the way.

Despite Ireland getting another penalty corner with just over a minute remaining, they could not make it count, and penalties soon followed as well as sudden death. Unfortunately, it was Anna O’ Flanagan who failed to convert hers and Ireland were left ruing the day. The famine would continue as no Irish sports team had made an Olympics since 1948.

But in 2019, that could all change. Although the women will not look towards the men for inspiration, their coach Sean Dancer is using the game to cover as many what-ifs as possible. Fail to prepare and all that.

Top table

But Irish hockey, especially women’s, is entering uncharted waters. A pitch has been put in specifically for these qualifiers in Donnybrook to capitalise on the fans’ momentum surrounding the team, and both stands are currently sold out, with just terrace tickets remaining. Irish hockey is usually entering games under the radar, both at home and abroad, and always ranked further down the radar than their rival sports.

But, after a successful and unprecedented year that saw them go from outsiders to being right up there with the best, the women’s team knows what they are capable of and what is necessary to sit at the top table again.

So, this weekend they face Canada in Energia Park in Donnybrook.

Canadian field hockey is no stranger to crazy set-ups and disruptions either.

After losing their funding through the Own the Podium fund and given how badly stricken the national organisation are for cash, Canada had $82,000 online crowdfunded campaign to allow the women’s team to travel for the World Leagues in Spain, where Canada placed second, thus setting up this mouth-watering clash in Dublin.

After record-setting years where they finished fifth at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018 and beating nine teams who were ranked higher than them, Field Hockey Canada had to restructure their contract with South African coach Giles Bonnet as financial constraints meant the women’s team were hit the hardest.

Canada failed to beat Argentina in the Pan-Am finals, and the coach is technically out of contract but has decided to stay on until the Dublin qualifiers are over. If Canada do qualify, they may have to pay their own coach to go to Tokyo if things in Field Hockey Canada do not change.

Despite Field Hockey Canada and West Vancouver Hockey Club coming to an agreement on the men’s home now being in Vancouver, the women’s team are still left out in the cold in Victoria. Through private donors and campaigns, Canada have made it this far.

So, this weekend is do-or-die in some cases. Ireland are still struggling for better standards and are riding a wave of media and fan frenzy at the moment, while Canada desperately need a victory to prove their worth to an organisation that does not appear to respect them.

As Ireland’s most-capped sportswoman, Shirley McCay is set to make a landmark 300th appearance for her country in front of the home crowd on Saturday night. The stakes could not be higher.

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