THE WORLD CUP PREVIEW
England women return to their 10,000 on Sunday in a final Women’s Hockey World Cup Pool B game featuring a team brimming with confidence, energy and belief. Except we’re not talking about the hosts here. Ireland, the table toppers, are the talk of Lee Valley, with the Green Army colours transported to front and back pages back home.
Ireland are ranked second lowest – at 15th – in London and while they admit to being surprised at having won the group, their underdog status has propelled them to higher-ranking wins over USA and India.
Never before had they won back-to-back matches at a World Cup in their four attempts stretching back to 1986. ‘We’ve been banging on the door of world hockey’, said Anna O’Flanagan after their Indian win secured a last eight passage.
But this World Cup campaign has finally lifted the part-timers. Having trained for six weeks leading up to the World Cup, with three camps in Dublin, Cork and Germany, Graham Shaw has gelled a side which relishes ‘playing under adversity’, as Shirley McCay told The Hockey Paper.
O’Flanagan, who plays for Bloemendaal, is one score away from equalling Ireland’s record scorer, Lynsey McVicker, currently on 65. She will aim to do so against England, a team they looked second-rate to in losing 4-1 at last summer’s EuroHockey Championships. What a summer turnaround.
This is McCay’s biggest tournament she’s played in. For Ireland’s most experienced player, approaching 270 caps, that says it all on Ireland’s progression here. A first Olympic campaign for the team must be the aspiration following this run.
McCay is set to retire after London to go into full-time coaching in Ulster. And as the final hooter sounded on Thursday, McCay surveyed the crowd and sounded out one ticket holder in particular.
“I had to ask my boss for more leave,” smiled the 30-year-old. “She was in the stands so I had to ask her for a bit more time off.”
As she says, it’s all because “we love the underdog tag and all know our strengths.”
Ireland women knows its recent history too – at a location they are beginning to love. In 2015, Ireland men beat England to bronze at the EuroHockey Championships for the nation’s biggest achievement; the women’s heroics at the same venue have undoubtedly trumped that.
The sport continually falls short when coming up with Ireland’s bigger beasts and no hockey pitches in seven Irish Republic counties – including Mayo, Kerry and Clare – tells some of the story.
McCay said: “We are all semi-professional. We don’t get paid to play and most of us have full-time jobs or in college and it brings us together. We are playing under adversity all the time and that only helps us.”
There is always an edge to proceedings whenever fully-funded England face up to rivals yearning for their millions and world-class support.
On Sunday evening, it will be heightened. There is much at stake: England need to find their mojo in attack and on penalty corners. They’ve showed glimpses of the former – plenty of circle penetration and attacking intent without that final flourish, Alex Danson aside – while it remains to be seen if they will wield out more PC routines.
— England Hockey (@EnglandHockey) July 26, 2018
“They maybe haven’t taken the chances and have under-performed compared to their expectations,” added McCay. “But they can perform under pressure and we are looking forward to the fight.”
Laura Unsworth knows a thing or two about pressure. She played at London 2012. She fought back with the team after the 2014 World Cup.
In her mind, she knows that England are ready to click.
“If we can keep creating chances, which we are doing, and put them away, then results look a little bit different,’ said the 30-year-old.
“We are going to make the most of it. Playing in front of 10,000 is a rare occurrence and everyone is positive and in a good place from the last two matches.”
England will be eyeing proceedings from early afternoon. A Dutch win over Italy will see them top and a potential last eight opponent. Then comes USA and India. If you’ve been reading The Hockey Paper, you’ll know the permutations by now. England can’t wait and ponder. They must go all out for the win.
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