By Tadhg Peavoy
Ireland women’s hockey coach Gene Muller has said that he feels Ireland’s chances of winning the Road to London in Belgium and making the London Olympics is conditional.
Ireland women play in the Road to London in Kontich, Belgium, from 17-25 March. Like their male counterparts, Ireland must negotiate a six-team pool, then reach and win a final to make the London Games. The pool is comprised of Ireland, Spain, Belgium, France, Mexico and Russia.
When asked on Ireland’s chances of winning in Kontich, Muller replied, “It’s probably a conditional answer. I would say our chances our good if we play well. And if we don’t play well our chances are diminished. So, I mean, it’s kind of a cliché in sport that you want to perform well and control the uncontrollable. I feel that we’ve done it up to here.
“And play with freedom. If we can find a way to ignore the pressure of playing for an Olympic position, then I think we’re in with a realistic chance. I would say if we manage to do that then we have a realistic chance of qualifying."
Muller also realises that his team must hit the ground running when his team open their campaign against France on St Patrick’s Day.
He said, “We’re playing a game where we’re probably favoured to win it, and that can bring its own pressure. I feel we’ve got quite a bit of momentum coming into this tournament. We’re playing well, we’re quite well rested.
"To say that a win against France will be three points, it’s exactly the amount of points we’ll get for beating the favourites Spain. So, the players realise that a win would be three points in the bag, but also would give us three points going into the tournament.”
Spain, as the favourites, are the team to beat. Muller feels his team have the Spaniards number though, although they will represent a great challenge to Ireland.
Muller said, “Spain have a tradition of Olympic hockey. They would have played in every Games since Barcelona where they won the gold. Automatically they have experience. They have a tradition of playing, so they’ll be really proud competitors.
“They [Spain] are also quite dogged. Spain beat the number one – at that time – in the world, the Netherlands, at the Europeans last year. I would say for us to negate it, first you have to control tempo against Spain. They are highly technical players, if you don’t control the tempo, you don’t control the match. So, we have to have a combination of pace and aggression. But you can’t just go in naively against them, because they’ll tear you apart.
“Our performance needs to be mature and measured against them.”
Belgium are regarded as an up-and-coming team and will also represent a threat to Ireland.
Muller said, “Belgium have probably had the best results coming into the tournament. We lost to Belgium recently, also Spain have lost to Belgium in the last few weeks. So, they are probably the form team and being at home they’ll be difficult to beat.
“On the counter side, we have had good results against Belgium a year ago, so we have the ability to beat them. Yet again, if we play with freedom, I would say we can put in a good show. If we can put in a good show, then we can get a good result against them.”
Muller also highlighted that Ireland are a very difficult team for their opponents to beat, “We’ve become a very physical team over the last few years, I think they’ll have to deal with our physicality.
"They’ll have to deal with our speed. We’ve also spent a lot of time on short corners, so our set play will be strong. So I would say physicality, speed and set pieces would be what our opponents are talking about to neutralise us.”