New faces, departing legends and a World Cup place up for grabs – Irish hockey enters new era

The easiest way to contextualise the new era that the Ireland women’s hockey team is about to embark on, is to whip out your phone and thumb through to the calculator app.

tart by typing in Shirley McCay’s 316 international caps, and then add on Nicci Daly’s 200 appearances as well as Hannah Matthews’ 157 outings. Once Lizzie Colvin, Nikki Evans and Grace O’Flanagan’s international tenures are also taken into account, you should be staring back at a figure of over 1000, which equates to hard-earned caps – including at the World Cup and Olympic games – that are no longer at the disposal of head coach Sean Dancer.

So, you could forgive Dancer and his squad – which, to be fair, still contains stalwarts such as Chloe Watkins, Roisin Upton and Ayeisha McFerran among others – for approaching next week’s eight-team World Cup qualification tournament in Italy with a smidge of trepidation.

Thankfully from an Irish perspective, the next generation of players, who came of age off the back of Ireland’s World Cup heroics in 2018, are ready to drive the project on once again.

While it will be extremely difficult to match a World Cup final appearance, punching the team’s ticket to next year’s big show would still constitute a major achievement for this group – particularly as they look to usher in a new era.

“It’s not going to be until we are lining up for the first match that I’m really going to notice those missing players,” says 21-year-old Dubliner, Hannah McLoughlin, who has 24 Ireland caps.

McLoughlin featured in Ireland’s inaugural Olympic campaign in Tokyo, netting her first international goal against Germany in the group stage. She is one of the players, along with new additions Niamh Carey, Erin Getty and Ellen Curran, who Dancer will be hoping can be key performers in Italy.

“Teams always go through different phases and we are in a bit of a recycle phase at the moment,” McLoughlin says.

“With the postponement of the Olympics by a year, we knew we were going to have a few retirements. We are going to miss playing with four or five big players who have retired and have been huge for Ireland, but it is also a really exciting phase for the team to bring in new players and to start a new journey. There are roles and responsibilities that will change in the squad but that it is a really exciting period for us.”,

Still, the absence of a number of legendary figures will require a bit of an adjustment.

“I’d be lying if I said we haven’t talked about the absence of those players, because we have,” McLoughlin continues.

“Shirley McCay is the most capped international player in the country and I feel fortunate to have played with her. If we want to qualify for the World Cup, we have to get over those missing players and having some new faces and a slightly different structure. And we have to get over that as quickly as we can.”

McLoughlin, who studies Economics and Finance in UCD, isn’t overstating the importance of the younger cohort blending in quickly. Ireland, who are the highest-ranked team, open the qualification tournament with a game against France on Thursday, October 21. Russia or Belarus are the potential semi-final opponents, with Scotland, Poland, Italy and Wales on the other side of the draw.

Only the winning team will earn a place at next year’s World Cup, set to be played in Spain and the Netherlands. Far from playing down next week’s breakneck slate of matches, set to be played over three days, McLoughlin puts it into perspective like this: you can’t generate the interest from competing in a major tournament if you don’t qualify in the first place.

“It is the most important tournament we will have this year,” she says. “We went to the Europeans, we went to the Olympics, but this tournament is to get to the next World Cup, so funnily enough, it is actually the most important.”

McLoughlin looks back at the Tokyo games as a fantastic experience, even if Ireland would have preferred a better return than just one win from five group games. As well as the memories of meeting stars such as Jamaican sprint sensation Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Andy Murray, she also left Japan understanding the need for the team to improve their attacking output in order to mix it with the world’s best.

To that end, she thinks the squad culture overseen by Sean Dancer will be crucial in ensuring the new faces fit in right away.

“The environment we train in outside of competition really fosters new players coming in and feeling comfortable, and having an impact and not feeling, ‘I’m a new player so I must conform in this way’. We want everyone who comes in to realise that they are there for their strengths,” McLoughlin says.

In a year that has seen women’s sport thrive, another achievement for the hockey team would go a long way towards keeping it in the shop window for prospective players to browse. From Rachael Blackmore’s Cheltenham heroics to Kellie Harrington’s golden games to Leona Maguire’s swashbuckling Solheim Cup showing, there has never been a time where the nation’s female sportspeople have collectively commanded such attention.

McLoughlin is hoping that the Ireland team can play a part in furthering the image of conquering female athletes in Italy next week.

“It is very refreshing to open a sports section and see Kellie Harrington and Rachael Blackmore on the front,” she says.

“A few years ago, you might have just seen it as a smaller column somewhere else but it has got so much more traction over the summer, which is really great. I think it is an exciting period because we get to support each other and a lot of it is about visibility for both young girls and boys and getting that balance as best we can.”

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