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Ireland's Olympic build-up hampered by coronavirus


Off course: Ireland captain Katie Mullan and Ayeisha McFerran

Off course: Ireland captain Katie Mullan and Ayeisha McFerran

�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Off course: Ireland captain Katie Mullan and Ayeisha McFerran

Ireland's proposed visit to Malaysia for a warm-weather training camp next month has been cancelled due to growing concerns over the coronavirus, which has already claimed more than 550 lives in China and other parts of Asia.

Ironically, confirmation of the news came yesterday when details of Ireland's two-week pre-Olympic holding camp in Iwate, north of Tokyo, were being announced at a function in Dublin.

Sean Dancer's squad - captained by Ulster's Katie Mullan - had planned to use the trip to South East Asia to replicate the conditions they will experience in Tokyo in the summer, with the extreme heat and high humidity in Malaysia being similar to Japan.

However, Hockey Ireland are clearly in no mood to take any chances with health risks to their senior international players, so the trip will now not take place.

Ireland head coach Dancer is adopting a pragmatic approach to the news and is hopeful that an alternative venue can be found for next month.

It isn't just Ireland affected by the knock-on effect of the virus and, in fact, both China and Japan's hockey teams are also relocating their training at the moment.

South Africa's climate, especially in the Durban region, offers the most similar weather conditions to what will be encountered in Tokyo.

"The coronavirus has put everything in doubt, not just for us but for everyone. We are working hard to get something else nailed down," said Dancer.

"It will be in that same window from March 16 to April 5. It's part and parcel of international hockey - we are an amateur sport trying to run professional programmes.

"There's no use stressing about it; it is what it is. We will have something in that window - we don't know what it is yet."

Ireland visited South Africa last month and played five internationals - three against their hosts and two against Germany - and a return trip to that part of the southern hemisphere is a distinct possibility.

The temperatures in the likes of Durban in the late South African summer will be similar to those in Malaysia.

Dancer added: "We've got some good information about Durban and it offers some similar conditions and that is the key for that camp, to get that humidity."

The 44-year-old former New Zealand assistant coach had mixed feelings about the recent trip to Stellenbosch when Ireland beat their hosts three times but lost the same number of games to Germany, 4-0 and 4-1 in the two capped matches.

Significantly, Ireland will face both those countries in Japan, opening with an all-important game against South Africa before also meeting Rio gold medallists Great Britain, World No.1 nation the Netherlands and India.

Dancer explained: "We had an issue with some wild weather and the heat wasn't quite what we were after but that's part and parcel of things and you just have to get on with it.

"The girls worked hard but from the heat point of view, we could have got another 20-25% from it.

"One of the big things we spoke about after the (Olympic) qualifiers was extending the group and giving opportunities to others, to expand our group and to create competition which will be really valuable for us.

"The first game of the Olympics will be very important; obviously every game will be tough. If we get off to a good start against South Africa - which we are confident we can do - it will be a big part in us being successful.

"From beating them three times now, we don't take a huge amount from it. It was disappointing to lose three times to Germany but we will learn a lot more than they will from those games."

Six Ulster players were in the 20-strong Ireland training panel that travelled to South Africa, while two others - Megan Frazer and Bethany Barr - were unable to take part due to long-term injuries.

Only 16 players will make the cut for Tokyo so there will be fierce competition for places over the next few months, with two weekend sessions involving 35 players scheduled over the next fortnight.

"We have to start narrowing the squad quite quickly," Dancer stated.

"I have earmarked 20 spots for the next camp (abroad), so the next two weeks are important for that selection.

"It will be the next step in starting to narrow down the squad."

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