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Gary has us psyched up for historic finals: Katie

 

By John Flack

Ireland women's hockey captain Katie Mullan has hailed the influence of former Ulster rugby star Gary Longwell ahead of the World Cup which begins today with a tough opener against the USA in London (6pm).

Longwell, who won 26 caps for Ireland and has a Masters degree in sports psychology, has been working with the squad as a performance skills coach.

The 46-year-old European Cup winner is no stranger to the big stage, having also been part of the Ireland squad for the 2003 World Cup in Australia, and Mullan says his knowledge and experience have been invaluable.

"Gary's influence has been incredibly beneficial. He's someone you can talk to about how you're managing life around international hockey and coping with work or studies," she said.

"He's been very supportive because he understands the sacrifices you make and even to hear about a different sport like rugby has been a big help.

"It's been a benefit, either on a one-to-one basis or working with him in a group and learning how teams have managed to cope with the pressure."

Ireland are competing at their first World Cup for 16 years, having finished 15th out of 16 nations at the 2002 edition in Perth, Australia.

The format is now different with four groups of four and only the pool winners qualifying automatically for the quarter-finals.

However, Ireland's more modest target will be to avoid last place in their pool, which also includes India and England.

If they do that, then they would be guaranteed a play-off match, with the winners going into the last eight and the losers heading for a flight home.

It's a tough ask, especially as only Italy of the 16 competing teams are ranked lower, with the Americans seventh in the world, England second and India 10th.

However, Mullan, one of six from Ulster, believes they can compete with the best as recent results have proved.

In the build-up they beat higher-ranked Germany and Japan and, to qualify for the World Cup, defeated India at the World League series in South Africa last summer.

Mullan added: "The number one priority is getting out of the group and then in a one-off crossover game, it's just who's the better team on the day.

"We've beaten many of the teams before so we're confident we can achieve our aim.

"We've set out a few tactical goals and if we can achieve them on the pitch then I am sure we'll come away proud and happy."

As well as Mullan, the other Ulster players are Megan Frazer, Ayeisha McFerran, Zoe Wilson, Shirley McCay and Lizzie Colvin.

After this evening's game against the USA, Ireland's other pool games are against India on Thursday (2pm) and England the following Sunday (7pm).

Meanwhile the Irish Under-18 boys came good in the European Championships in Santander when they thumped Poland 5-0, although they will need to beat England comfortably tomorrow (1.45pm) to survive relegation.

Their goals came from two penalty strokes by Matteo Romeli, penalty corner goals from Cookstown's Jack Haycock and Ben Johnson and from open play by Alistair Empey.

The Under-16s lost narrowly 1-0 to Belgium in Cork in their Six Nations series, and the Under-23s also lost to Belgium 4-1 in their tournament in Antwerp.

Ireland's Under-18 girls may need at least a point from today's game with France in Santander (5.45pm) to preserve top-flight status at the European Championship following a 4-1 loss to Spain yesterday.

Caoimhe Purdue scored their late consolation goal.

The Under-23s must beat Canada in Antwerp (9.30am) to avoid last place at the Six Nations series after losing 1-0 to Belgium, while the Under-16s play Germany in Cork (3pm), also hoping to avoid last place.

Belfast Telegraph

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