Hockey: Ireland women primed for first World Cup game in 16 years
Ireland are under no illusions about the task that lies ahead as they prepare for their first World Cup appearance in 16 years, starting with Saturday's opener against the United States in London (6pm).
Currently ranked 16th in the world, Graham Shaw’s squad will need to punch above their weight if they are to achieve their objective of avoiding an early flight home.
Unlike previous such tournaments, when even last place in the group led to a series of classification matches, the bottom finisher in the four-team pools will be packing their bags.
There is little margin for error then as Ireland attempt to progress with games against India and hosts England to follow after Saturday’s contest with the Americans.
Ireland are ranked second-lowest of the 16 competing nations and so, if the world ladder is to be an indicator, they have no right to get out of the pool by finishing third or higher.
However, Shaw believes that Ireland can do just that and, if they were to succeed, they would then face a play-off match with a quarter-final slot at stake for the winners.
“We have come to London to get out of the group and into the knockout stages,” head coach Shaw boldly declared.
“It will be tough given the calibre of the teams in Pool B with us but that is what a World Cup is about and we have a belief in our ability and know what we are capable of.
“There were some difficult calls when selecting this World Cup squad and that is a testament to the quality and depth we have in the larger panel.”
Six Ulster players are in the 18-strong squad, including Megan Frazer, who has only played 35 minutes for Ireland over the past two years.
She made two cameo appearances in last week’s warm-up games against Chile and Italy and is being nursed back to full fitness after an horrific knee injury.
The Londonderry woman, who was Ireland’s best player until she was sidelined with a bad cruciate injury, is likely to play in Saturday’s game but it might be another brief appearance.
“It was very frustrating being out for so long but it’s great to be back and I am really buzzing to be at a World Cup although it’s been a mental challenge as much as a physical one, getting back on the pitch,” said Frazer.
While tonight’s game with world number seven USA is not crucial - a point would be a huge bonus - Thursday’s clash with 10th ranked India is likely to hold the key to Ireland’s chances of progressing.
Pool B fixtures: Saturday: Ireland v USA (6pm); Thursday July 26: Ireland v India (2pm); Sunday July 29: England v Ireland (7pm)