The Ireland v Great Britain matches over the next four days may be billed as uncapped, friendly hockey matches, but come push back they will be anything but.
“I don’t think any match we have played is a friendly,” joked Hollie Pearne-Webb, returning as GB captain for the first time in 13 months.
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For the rest of the squad playing in these behind-closed-doors matches – GB last travelled to Ireland in 2008 – it has been a chance to leave the confines of a central programme and travel as a unit.
“The sense is that everyone is just really happy and super excited to be here,” said Pearne-Webb ahead of Saturday’s first match in Belfast. “We haven’t played for so long apart from against one another at Bisham [in intra squad matches].
“There will be individual nerves with the matches closer to [Olympic] selection and these games are a great opportunity for us. Ireland will be more match sharp than us after playing Spain last month but it’s great not to be at Bisham and playing high quality opposition.”
Pearne-Webb’s lockdown has largely consisted of nursing her big toe back to full strength. She had an operation soon after the Tokyo qualifiers in 2019 and then moved another one forward when the Tokyo Olympics were rescheduled as she waited for her surgeon who was working at NHS Nightingale.
She last played in February 2020 during the FIH Pro League trip Down Under and to say she is excited is an understatement. Yet, the same goes for the whole squad.
“A huge benefit of being on a central programme is spending so much time together and that’s not just on the pitch,” added Pearne-Webb.
“On the whole it [the pandemic] has brought us closer together. The rest of the world has been through difficulties of their own and adapting to the challenges.
“We had small group check-ins, squad meetings, speaking to nutritionists and psychologists, and we tried not to make Covid an excuse.”
With their first matches of 2021, GB also has a near-to-full strength squad of 25 for the Ireland matches, with few injury worries.
“There is a sense of everything coming together as we head into an Olympics,” added Pearne-Webb.