The Irish women’s hockey team continue to ride on a crest of a wave which began in 2018 after securing the passage to their first ever Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. Of course, anyone who has followed the sport on this island for the past year will know that it wasn’t without drama.
Canada were the opponents for the ‘green machine’ at a converted rugby pitch at Energia Park in Donnybrook on the 2nd and 3rd of November. The Canadians ranked 15th in the world (compared to Ireland’s 10th) were seen as the toughest draw Ireland could have gotten and so it proved. Over the two legs there wasn’t a single goal in normal time and as a result it went to penalty shuttles. This is essentially a shootout where the player has 8 seconds to run from the halfway line and score past the goalkeeper. The sport which can cause confusion amongst many at times, certainly knows how to put on a dramatic show. The TMO was used endlessly throughout the two legs, none more so than in the shootout when Ireland’s place at Tokyo next year was confirmed after Roisín Upton scored the winning penalty despite having a broken wrist.
The question that must be raised however is, just how good is this Irish team? This may seem idiotic considering they reached the final of last years World Cup and are on their way to the Olympics. The statistics make for interesting reading however. On their way to the final last year, Ireland avoided having to beat any of the games superpowers and lost to the two top ranked teams in England (1-0 in group stage) and the Netherlands (6-0 in the final). To reach the final Ireland beat both India and Spain ranked 10th and 11th respectively on penalties to advance. One could argue that this was quite a favourable draw and the side were outclassed by a far superior Dutch side in the final. Ireland also created very little against Canada especially in the 2nd leg with no clear-cut chances evident. Having said this, the character shown in the last year especially against the Canadians was incredible where they were 3-1 down on penalties and seemingly destined to fail once more. The way in which they hung in to the very end despite not playing well displays true quality which has not been seen in an Irish hockey team before. The Irish goalkeeper Ayiesha McFerran is arguably the number one goalkeeper in the world who came up with three stellar saves when the team needed her the most. Roisín Upton scored the winning penalty with a broken wrist of all things! That more than anything shows a unique grit and determination amongst an amateur team with an extraordinary drive to succeed. That is something to be very proud of.
It also important to note that this Irish women’s hockey team are probably the only Irish female team to have a larger profile than their male counterparts which is saying something considering women’s sport in Ireland is still in its development stage. On that note, spare a thought for the men’s team who had just a dramatic playoff against the same opposition but unlike their female counterparts, ended in the cruellest of fashion. 5-3 up from the first leg and 1-0 up in the second after the first quarter, Ireland seemed to be cruising but the Canadians enjoyed more of the possession in the second match and found themselves 2-1 up heading into the final quarter. Even at this point Ireland seemed to be relatively comfortable until disaster struck in the dying seconds of the game when a controversial penalty corner was awarded in what looked like minimum contact from Irish player Lee Cole on the opposing attacker. Canada scored to send the game to a penalty shootout which the Canadians prevailed 5-4 despite Ireland being 3-1 up. A heartbreaking way to end a heartbreaking tie for Ireland who will no doubt be having sleepless nights over what happened.
Overall, it’s fair to say that it was quite an eventful week for Irish hockey. Not for the first time, the ‘Green Machine’ looked dead and buried but came out alive more than ever. The men will have to wait four more years for a shot at redemption. To finish on a high however, Sunday the 3rd of November will be remembered as another famous night for Irish hockey. Hopefully there is more to come.
One Irish team may have already been banished in Japan but one would be a fool to think that this group of role models will be joining them.