Thursday's meeting with France in Pisa (10.30am) is one of those watershed moments that arises now and then in hockey as Ireland go into their World Cup qualifier more than 1000 caps lighter than the Irish team of a year ago.
Ireland need to beat France to advance to the next stage on Saturday where they need to win again to make the last two. Another win is then required as just one team qualifies for next year’s World Cup in Spain and the Netherlands.
The outcome of the series will also determine where the Irish team stands in world hockey for at least the next year. Unable to secure qualification at the European Championships in Amsterdam in June, Ireland gone from the position of having made an historical World Cup final in London 2018 and a first Olympic Games finals this summer to finding itself in a fraught win or bust qualifier in Italy.
Following the Olympics the familiar faces that have disappeared from the scene include the retired Shirley McCay, Hannah Matthews and Lizzie Holden, while Nicci Daly, goalkeeper Grace O’Flanagan and Nikki Evans have stepped back from the international programme.
Coach Sean Dancer has had to quickly feed relatively fresh faces into the travelling squad of 18 and two reserves. But there is no way to instantly replace that amount of intellectual capital despite the talent of those coming in, most of the players with caps in single figures coming from university sides.
They include UCD's uncapped Niamh Carey, Ard's Zara Malseed (four), UCD's Sarah McAuley (six), UCD's Michelle Carey (seven) and Queen's Erin Getty (eight) with Malseed, McAuley and Michelle Carey all gaining experience from having played in an emotional Tokyo last summer, where Ireland missed out on a place in the knock-out phase.
Getty is one of three players making their ranking tournament debuts alongside Ellen Curran and Niamh Carey.
“It is a baptism of fire, going into such an important tournament,” says Getty, who hopes to grab her opportunity following a return to the senior panel almost four years from her last cap. A serious hamstring injury kept her sidelined for nine months in her struggle back.
“It’s not just for the girls coming in but also important to build on the legacy of what the older girls have created with success in the World Cup and Olympics. We are under no illusions it will be easy. We are prepared and focused for France.
“It is an exciting time but definitely a transition with the turnaround time for the girls at the Olympics. The time for us newcomers coming in has been quite tight and it hasn’t been a long preparation period but what we have done in a short time has been pretty impressive. We know exactly what we have to do and it’s exciting to go out and do it.”
Dancer’s side go into the tournament with the highest world ranking of all the teams and although France have been improving, they are ranked 27th to Ireland’s 12th. A win against the French would pitch Ireland against the winners of 20th ranked Russia or Belarus, ranked 21st.
“Anna O’Flanagan, Chloe [Watkins], Róisín [Upton], Ayeisha [McFerran], Lena [Tice], Katie [Mullan], Deirdre [Duke] – we do have a huge amount there from the Olympics and beyond,” said Dancer. “We have to draw on that first of all and expect those guys to stand up under pressure which I certainly know they will.
“The flip side is the excitement. We have players who have never had a Test match before; first ever event and they get to try qualify for a World Cup.”
Scotland, ranked 19th in the world, Poland (23rd), Italy (17th) and Wales (25th) are on the other side of the draw.
Irish senior women’s panel for World Cup qualifiers (club/caps)
Ayeisha McFerran (SV Kampong, Netherlands, 110)
Lizzie Murphy (Loreto, 13)
Lena Tice (Old Alex, 119)
Róisín Upton (Catholic Institute, 86)
Hannah McLoughlin (UCD, 24)
Sarah McAuley (UCD, 6)
Sarah Hawkshaw (Railway Union, 43)
Michelle Carey (UCD, 7)
Katie Mullan (captain, Ballymoney, 203)
Ellen Curran (Pembroke, 24)
Sarah Torrans (Loreto, 31)
Chloe Watkins (Monkstown, 234)
Zara Malseed (Ards, 4)
Naomi Carroll (Catholic Institute, 119)
Niamh Carey (UCD, 0)
Deirdre Duke (Old Alex, 151)
Anna O'Flanagan (Muckross, 217)
Erin Getty (Queen's, 8)
Charlotte Beggs (Ulster Elks, 0)
Jane Kilpatrick (Belfast Harlequins, 0)