After going a year without a game, the Irish hockey team suddenly have big targets looming on the horizon. 

Head coach Sean Dancer whittled his squad down last month to 23 players – including uncapped pair Michelle Carey and Zara Malseed – and they are currently in Spain taking on the host country in a five-match series. 

The last time they competed as a team was on tour to South Africa 12 months ago and now the focus is on the bigger picture. 

The side created history in 2019 as they secured a place for their first Olympic Games after winning a dramatic penalty shoot-out against Canada and their campaign, Covid permitting, is scheduled to start on July 24 where Ireland will be up against South Africa, with Netherlands, Germany, India and Great Britain waiting in the wings in the six-team preliminary group. 

Prior to that however is the European Championships in Amsterdam in June, which also doubles up as 2022 World Cup qualification. 

Ireland began the week with a 4-1 win over Spain, before falling 3-2 today with three further games to take place before the end of the weekend. 

With only 16 players (plus two reserves) allowed travel to Tokyo, and 18 permitted for the European Championships, Dancer has some difficult decisions to make regarding final selection. 

Anna O’Flanagan, a star of the side that claimed silver at the 2018 World Cup, says the competition is welcome. 

"Competition is extremely high," she told RTÉ’s Game On. "It’s always at the back of your mind that you want to be part of the 16 for Tokyo and 18 for the Europeans, but at the minute we are just enjoying being together as a team and playing games. 

Given the uncertainty since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Flanagan admits it is almost a relief to be back on the court with such big prizes on offer in 2021. 

"There were a lot of hoops to go through to get over here, so were delighted to get over here and play some matches.

"It’s been great to get back together. We are really, really enjoying it and building towards the summer 

"It’s a huge year. There isn’t a huge pile of practice building up to it, but we are so grateful to be back playing hockey and to be able to compete at this level."