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Tokyo Olympics has long been Ireland's number goal, says captain Katie Mullan

 

Crunch time: Katie Mullan admits this means everything to Ireland
Crunch time: Katie Mullan admits this means everything to Ireland

By John Flack

Ireland women's captain Katie Mullan has revealed that qualification for the Tokyo Olympics has been the No.1 priority for three years and now it's do-or-die with Canada standing in the way in this weekend's double-header at Donnybrook.

The stakes could hardly be higher, with a first ever appearance at the showpiece the prize for an Irish win over the two legs.

The odds favour Ireland, albeit marginally, as they go into the two games with a higher world ranking - eighth to Canada's 15th - and with the perceived benefit of home advantage on the newly-laid pop-up hockey pitch.

Ireland have had mixed fortunes in the build-up with wins over China and defeats to Belgium and South Korea - three teams who have a lower world ranking.

However, Mullan's team had a similarly mediocre run-up to their last attempt at Olympic qualification only to agonisingly miss out on qualification for Rio in a penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw with China.

Securing a set of silver medals at last year's World Cup went some way to easing the pain, particularly as they put the shoot-out agony to bed by winning two en route to the final.

It was shortly after the 2016 Rio Olympics that Ireland turned their attention to the qualification bid for Tokyo, two years before they took the world of hockey by storm with their totally unexpected heroics in London.

Mullan said: "The prospect of Olympic qualification was definitely something we discussed before the World Cup.

"I think when we regrouped after the Rio Olympics, we got a few new players in the squad and that was when it became the end goal.

"Qualification for the World Cup came soon after but qualification for Tokyo was something we discussed back then.

"We work in four-year cycles and when we had a few retirements and got a few younger players in, that would have been when we started discussing it and setting it as our key goal."

Mullan says the squad are excited, rather than daunted, by the prospect of playing in front of more than 5,000 fans at the transformed Donnybrook rugby stadium.

She added: "We want to back up what we did last summer and one thing that we all felt came out of the World Cup was we felt we had an extra player on the pitch because of the crowd and the sea of green.

"We know we're going to have that this weekend with the number of people who are coming to watch us. We don't see that as an extra added pressure - we see that as a calming thing, something that gives us an extra boost."

However, the Coleraine woman - one of seven Ulster players in the squad - knows that Canada cannot be taken for granted and, if anything, their build-up has been more impressive than Ireland's.

They defeated higher-ranked USA to reach the final of the Pan American Games and, since then, have drawn a series with Spain, who qualified for Tokyo last weekend.

"They will definitely be really tough opponents and they are a bit like us in that they have a lot of experience in their squad," Mullan said. "We will also be leaning on all our past experiences and picking up on the lessons we have learned along the way.

"It's 120 minutes of hockey and we have to forget what we're playing for a little bit and go out and trust in our training and the processes we have put in place."

The games, which are being shown live on the BBC Sport NI website, start at 7pm tonight and 7.10pm tomorrow.

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