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A whole new ball game for Donnybrook as it is set to host Ireland's Tokyo quest

 

Donnybrook stadium in Dublin
Donnybrook stadium in Dublin
New surroundings: Great Britain playing New Zealand at Twickenham Stoop

By John Flack

In a novel and exciting development, Ireland women's Olympic qualifier against Canada is to be staged at Donnybrook rugby stadium in Dublin in early November.

The two-legged double-header, from which the aggregate winners will book their tickets to Tokyo, will take place on Saturday and Sunday, November 2-3.

Energia Park in the south of the city will be transformed, with a 'pop-up' hockey carpet being laid at the venue over the existing artificial grass rugby surface.

While it's an unprecedented move in Irish hockey, Great Britain pioneered such a step by hosting two Pro League fixtures against New Zealand at the Twickenham Stoop, the home of Harlequins RFC, earlier this year with great success.

The games involving both their men's and women's teams attracted a full house of 12,000 spectators over the course of the two-day event.

The pitch to be laid in Donnybrook will be the same as the one used at The Stoop.

The Dublin venue has a capacity of 6,000 with covered seated accommodation for 2,500 spectators and it's hoped that the Canada games will be sold out.

If so, the double-header will attract the biggest crowds ever seen at a hockey match in Ireland, beating the 5,000 that attended the Women's World Cup final when it was hosted in Dublin in 1994.

On that occasion, Belfield was the chosen venue, but the pitch at UCD's headquarters, which is still regarded as the National Hockey Stadium, has only recently been relaid and there are still ongoing infrastructural issues.

Laying the new temporary surface at Donnybrook is estimated to cost around £230,000 but, if a capacity 12,000 spectators turn up over the two days, it would be self-financing and possibly profit-making if you add on the various commercial ventures that are expected to run alongside the event.

The fact that hockey pitches can now be dropped onto stadiums associated with other sports, where stands are already in place with the increased capacity and consequent saving in not having to pay for the installation of temporary seating, makes it a viable option going forward - assuming the Irish public get behind the idea and turn up in big numbers.

However, with the profile of the women's game still on a high after the reflected glory of the silver medal finish in London last August, Hockey Ireland clearly believes that the interest can be sustained as Ireland bid to reach an Olympic Games for the first time.

Katie Mullan's team has not played in Dublin since the World Cup when the support for the Irish far outnumbered that of any other country bar the English hosts.

Mullan, one of eight Ulster women in the current Ireland squad, said: "This is fantastic news and hopefully we get the whole nation behind us again and turn Donnybrook into a sea of green.

"For all of us, Olympic qualification has been a goal ever since the World Cup and it's what we commit our lives to and make all those sacrifices for.

"To have come so close at the last qualifying tournament for Rio 2016 in Valencia was heartbreaking for us all, but the important thing for us now is to back up what we did at the World Cup.

"We said after London that while what we did was amazing, it was very grounding in a way to know that when we started this journey the ultimate goal was to get to an Olympic Games.

"Yes, we got the silver medals in London, but that only motivated us to get straight out onto the pitch afterwards to keep building towards this qualifier, and I have no doubt people will get behind us at Donnybrook and we are pretty excited to have a home draw."

The Canada games are expected to take place at 7pm on both days and will be broadcast live on RTÉ television, with the evening timing designed to avoid a clash with the Rugby World Cup final in Japan on Saturday, November 2 at 9am UK time.

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