(written on behalf of the Irish Hockey Association by Stephen Findlater)
One of six survivors from Canada four years ago, Alex Speers and her Irish panel, sponsored by Electric Ireland, are taking nothing for granted.
Ireland’s last Olympic qualifying campaign blew up in smoke at the hands of lower ranked Italy, something scarcely envisaged in the build-up. Korea were the form team with an experienced Irish side the potential hares in the pack, hoping to spring forth and cause a shock.
But, with a draw required, a 2-0 loss to the unfancied Italians in the final game of the six-team group denied Ireland a final place.
It was a harrowing experience for Speers but one which her side must draw from as they open their Olympic qualifying campaign with three ties against the so-called minnows of Mexico, France and Russia. Any slip could jeopardise their campaign prior to the huge mini-league with Spain and Belgium that kicks in on day four of the competition, a situation the Railway Union club woman cannot bear to contemplate.
“Four years ago, we looked up a lot to Korea and never really thought of Italy,” she said. “When it came to it, they were the side who did the damage. There are enough of us there to remember that heartache. It is something we never want to experience again.
“It is very important we take each game as it comes. On paper, we have the three lowest ranked teams in the tournament in the first three matches and then go into the harder ones. We take nothing for granted. We need to perform to beat each team and need to build performances toward the fourth, fifth and sixth matches when they come and be right up there.”
Cliodhna Sargent, Shirley McCay, Nikki Symmons, Lisa Jacob and Emma Clarke were all there in April 2008. All are centurions now, reflecting the large experience base in Gene Muller’s panel despite the tender average age.
And it is a bank of knowledge that has received notable extra deposits in recent times, fruitful trips to Argentina just before Christmas (with thanks to their sponsors Electric Ireland and the Irish Sports Council) and South Africa for six international ties with the host nation and Belgium.
“Post-Europeans we turned a corner. Training, matches, everything. We have got something from all of it. The pieces of the jigsaw are there. We just have to put it together. If we do, we will get the result.
“Since Argentina in December, the last three or four months have been very exciting. Coming out in the second half against Argentina in Parana with the crowd singing their national anthem; it was kind of surreal but it was very good trip. We got a lot out of it with a lot of different players growing into it.
“I would definitely say there is a lot more excitement looking forward to the qualifiers [than the Europeans]. After the two trips away when we got results, we go into the tournament having scored lots of field goals against France, not just from short corners, so we go in with lots of confidence.”
They were timely strikes, nine goals from play adding a diversity of scoring options after the vast majority of other warm-up games saw the likes of Sargent, Audrey O’Flynn and Shirley McCay score from set-pieces.
“The forwards need to win the corners for us to score them. It’s important to have a high corner rate. We need that as well but it was nice for the confidence of the forwards to get field goals.”
Ireland start their campaign on St. Patrick’s Day March 17th against France at 13.30 local time.
Saturday 17 March 2012
11.00 Spain v Mexico
13.30 Ireland v France
16.00 Belgium v Russia
Sunday 18 March 2012
11.00 Spain v France
13.30 Ireland v Russia
16.00 Mexico v Belgium
Monday 19 March 2012 Rest day
Tuesday 20 March 2012
13.00 Mexico v Ireland
15.30 Russia v France
18.00 Belgium v Spain
Wednesday 21 March 2012 Rest Day
Thursday 22 March 2012
14.00 Russia v Mexico
16.30 Ireland v Spain
19.00 France v Belgium
Friday 23 March 2012
14.00 France v Mexico
16.30 Spain v Russia
19.00 Belgium v Ireland
Saturday 24th March 2012 Rest Day
Sunday 25th March 2012
11:30 5th in Pool v 6th in Pool
14.00 3rd in Pool v 4th in Pool
16:30 1st in Pool v 2nd in Pool