Loreto face an uphill task this weekend as they take on the EuroHockey Club Challenge I in Rakovnik, Czech Republic without a trio of frontline stars, writes Stephen Findlater.
The proximity of the competition to the World Cup – which starts in under a month – means Christina Hamill, Siofra O’Brien and Sarah Torrans are all unavailable as they fly back from a key training camp in Japan.
With Hannah Matthews unable to play in Friday’s opening game against Italy’s AD Polisportiva Valverde due to work reasons, it means coach Paul Fitzpatrick will have to shuffle his deck significantly.
Bedding in new faces has been particularly tricky, too, with a month passing since the end of the Irish club season, allied to a busy exam period for students in the panel.
Nonetheless, opportunity knocks with one of the two promotion places on offer the goal from a tournament reduced from eight teams to five due to the exclusion of Russia and Belarus’s representatives.
Effectively, Loreto have to win one of their two group games against the Italians on Friday or hosts HC 1972 Rakovnik on Sunday to set up a promotion playoff on Monday.
As such, Fitzpatrick says his side is going into the date with Valverde “blind” but in an upbeat frame of mind.
“We are in a positive space,” he said. “It is difficult knowing we are travelling without players who have a huge impact on our squad and we have to mix and match.”
He has slightly more insight into Rakovnik thanks to a call to Gareth Grundie, the former Irish senior women’s assistant coach who is now the Czech boss.
“It’s not an easy ask but still very confident we will give a very good account of ourselves. The aim is to be in a position to get promoted on the Monday and that would be success.”
With the long hiatus and no other local club sides still active, Fitzpatrick has innovated to keep the panel ticking over, calling on some of his students at The High School to spare with.
“We have been quite lucky to get schoolboys to help us out with training most Thursday nights, playing eight versus eight games, setting up corner defence and attack positions.
“With exams, we were really short some weeks and so the boys really helped out.”
Friendlies against the Irish under-18s, -21s and senior selection have been particularly beneficial but it was April 23rd when they last hit the turf in anger. By contrast, Valverde are in the midst of the final stages of the Italian league where they are in fifth place. Rakovnik were second in the Czech league with 10 wins out of 12.
In Okayama, meanwhile, the Irish women lost their third game of an uncapped series against world No 10 side Japan. It was 1-0 this time in searing heat with Holly Micklem on her turn in goal while Sarah Hawkshaw was excellent throughout in midfield.