Tokyo 2020: What now for Ireland’s golden hockey generation after Britain defeat?

There’s no time to reflect for Sean Dancer’s side with World Cup qualifiers looming

Olympics Hockey Pool A: Ireland 0 Britain 2

Almost as soon as the emotion of the Irish women's hockey team falling short of their ambition to reach their first Olympic quarter-final had subsided coach Sean Dancer and the senior players were faced with the question of what to do next.

Outplayed by India on Friday in a match the team had targeted to win and on Saturday again by the British Olympic champions from Rio, Dancer must now think ahead to a World Cup qualifying tournament in the autumn, a World Cup next summer and an abbreviated three-year cycle to the next Olympic Games in Paris 2024.

The age profile of the Irish team is now an issue and there is little doubt there will be some retirements over the coming months. Of the 16 athletes, who played in the final 2-0 defeat by Britain, Ireland’s fifth match in eight days, seven are 29-years-old or more and just five are under 25.


Dancer has little time to rebuild before the World Cup qualifiers and if Ireland are to stay on the trajectory they set over the past four years by qualifying for the World Cup finals in London in 2018 and Tokyo 2020, some strategic thinking is going to have to take place.

In a sense the British defeat was like the end of an era, or at least a shared journey and the emotion of the players afterwards played out along those lines as they formed a circle in the middle of the pitch and sang long after others had left the Oi Stadium in Tokyo.

"We'd see it as the start of wanting to compete at the top tournaments," said Róisín Upton. "The World Cup in 2018 was the first one (for Ireland) since 2001 or 2003. We had gone 16 years without a competitive tournament. So to go from a World Cup to an Olympics …neither of them are easy tournaments to qualify for. We just need to be consistent now.

“We’ve got a tournament in October that we need to qualify for a World Cup next summer and then we’re looking at Paris 2024. We don’t want it to end here.”

It would be a shame if that happened as this group have been exceptional for Irish hockey. However bridging the gap between qualifying for next summer and managing change, while consistently being competitive is no easy matter.

The 2018 World Cup final has probably queered general expectations. But Ireland know there’s not a great deal of distance between them and the top six sides, apart from the imperious Dutch.

“The difficult part is the World Cup qualifier in October,” said Dancer. “The Olympics is normally the end of your cycle so you want to have a good down period to refresh and get ready again. Unfortunately for us we have a bit more work to get done for the rest of the year and we have to let the dust settle.

“People like Shirley (McCay) have been playing so long and this has been their goal and dream and in the end, once they get back to Ireland, they need to let it settle and we’ll look at what the team looks like from there. I’m certainly confident of the group moving forward.”

The final match came down to beating the Olympic champions which was a tall order a day after India’s 1-0 win. While Ireland threatened, they did so only in isolated breaks, Nicci Daly and Anna O’Flanagan forcing saves, against a stronger side.

Midway through the first half Britain earned a series of penalty corners. It was on the sixth on 17 minutes that Susannah Townsend, funnelling into the goal area, picked up a loose ball off goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran's pads and volleyed in from a few feet out for 1-0.

The second goal arrived in the first minute of the second-half and killed the momentum Ireland had built at the end of the first-half. A smashed backhand across the goalmouth passed everybody but Hannah Martin, her perfectly timed half volley enough to beat goalkeeper McFerran for 2-0. From that there was no way back.

“We’re just the lucky 18 or 19 that get to be here,” said Upton. “We’ve been training as a squad of 30 all year. As you know it’s been a four or five-year journey to get here and there’s many people at home who would have died to be here.

“Our family and friends would love to be here. It’s the end of a cycle and we’re going to be losing a couple of senior players. It’s always tricky and it’s bitter sweet. We’ve broken the barrier now. We’ve competed at our first Olympics and hopefully it won’t be our last.”

Ireland: A McFerran, S McAuley, S McCay, R Upton, L Tice, C Watkins, K Mullan, A O'Flanagan, S Hawkshaw, D Duke, S Torrans. Subs: H McLoughlin, H Matthews, L Holden, Z Malseed, N Daly.

Britain: M Hinch, L Unsworth, A Toman, S Jones, S Townsend, S Robertson, E Rayer, G Ansley, H Pearne-Webb, S McCallin, L Owsley. Subs: H Martin, I Petter, L Wilkinson, F Crackles, G Balsdon

Umpires: C de la Fuente (ARG), E Yamada (JPN).