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Katie Mullan: Ireland won't go to the Olympics to make up the numbers

Roaring success: Ireland captain Katie Mullan (top) leads the celebrations after securing qualification for Tokyo 2020
Roaring success: Ireland captain Katie Mullan (top) leads the celebrations after securing qualification for Tokyo 2020

By John Flack

Now that qualification for next year's Olympic Games has been secured after the dramatic sudden-death penalty shoot-out win over Canada on Sunday night at an emotionally-charged Energia Park in Dublin, Ireland's attention will soon switch to the build-up for the trip to Tokyo.

The players will be given a well-deserved break from international matches and training camps before the hard work begins, albeit with a few obstacles to overcome along the way.

In days gone by, work commitments often got in the way and not every member of the various squads could give 100 per cent to the cause.

One or two even had to occasionally miss major tournaments as they experienced difficulty in getting time off work from their employers.

However, that has been mitigated as far as the current squad is concerned, with some players taking career breaks to concentrate on hockey, or those who are students successfully juggling sport with their academic commitments.

Gone are the days when the Irish players had to actually pay to play - with levies of around £450 per year - and now, in fact, those in full-time employment are compensated thanks to a bursary scheme made possible by a three-year sponsorship deal with Dublin firm Park Developments.

With their financial backing, the current squad were able to train and play for four days a week in the build-up to the qualifiers with Canada at the weekend.

That level of commitment paid obvious dividends in Dublin as Ireland finally made it to an Olympics after years of failed efforts, with Ulster's Shirley McCay, one of seven from the province in the squad, having had three previously unsuccessful attempts at reaching what she described on Sunday as the "Holy Grail".

Ireland will be joined by hosts Japan, Argentina, Australia, China, Germany, reigning champions Great Britain, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain after booking their tickets to the showpiece for the first time.

With more than £1m expected to land in the Hockey Ireland coffers from government sources on both sides of the border, specifically for the build-up to and participation in Tokyo, money shouldn't be an issue.

However, of the 12 participating teams in Japan, seven also take part in the elite Pro League, which the teams concerned will be using as their major block of games to prepare for the Olympics.

That will limit Ireland's options as far as top-class opposition is concerned as head coach Sean Dancer sets about the task of preparing the team for the tournament.

It's likely that a warm-weather training camp to Spain, which has become an annual event for the squad, will again be on the agenda.

Spain, who won the bronze medals at last year's World Cup after losing to Ireland in the semi-finals, are higher-ranked and do not take part in the Pro League.

A visit to South Africa would be another option as they, too, are free of Pro League commitments.

So are host nation Japan, so a dry run to the tournament venue cannot be ruled out either, and Great Britain have already taken such a step to familiarise themselves with the extreme heat they will encounter in the summer.

Meanwhile, Ireland captain Katie Mullan insists they won't be going to Tokyo merely to make up the numbers.

She said: "We got to a World Cup final last year and we are going out to Japan to punch above our weight as we always do."

Mullan also paid tribute to her squad and the crowd of more than 12,000 who packed into the Donnybrook stadium over the two-legged qualifier with Canada.

The 25-year-old added: "I'm just so proud of this group of girls - no one deserves it more than they do and the crowd were just amazing.

"The hockey wasn't pretty on Saturday, and it wasn't much prettier on Sunday, but they kept on cheering regardless and we are so grateful for that.

"We have an incredible amount of experience in penalty shoot-outs after (winning two at) the World Cup last summer, and when you have someone with the composure and class of Ayeisha McFerran in goal it gives you a huge boost."

Mullan says that Olympic qualification is huge for Irish hockey.

She added: "This is massive for the sport - for all the players that have gone before us and missed out on that Olympic dream, I think it would be something special for them too, players that played three or four qualifiers and missed out.

"Even bigger than that, as a nation, for a female sports team to qualify for an Olympic Games, it's creating history again for females in sport, young girls to give them something to aspire to in terms of an Olympic Games.

"Obviously, for our team, we've been on a long journey and although what we achieved last summer was very special, this was always our dream, what we set out to achieve from day one, so I think for us, as a group of players, it means everything to get to Tokyo.

"Also the sacrifices we have made in all of our lives, whether that is giving up a dream job, missing out on many a family occasion for training camps - all that you give up along the way makes it all worthwhile."

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