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Deirdre Duke got the ball rolling with the opening goal of Ireland’s magical run to the Hockey World Cup final in 2018.
Three years on, Duke stresses the need to follow suit in a first-ever Olympics for the women’s team with an opening win against South Africa (1.15pm Irish time).
Ireland are in a tough pool, as they were in the World Cup.
But victories back then against the USA – Duke scored twice in a 3-1 win – and India (1-0) meant that the narrow loss to England wasn’t enough to prevent Ireland from topping the group and making the quarter-finals.
In Tokyo, they quickly follow the encounter with South Africa with a clash with reigning World Cup and European champs the Netherlands on Monday, Germany on Wednesday, then India and Great Britain.
The top four from that group of six will progress to the quarter-finals.
“When we started off in the World Cup, the first one against the USA was always our target game,” she said.
“Obviously a really good win and performance set the platform for the rest of the tournament.
“And I guess as the confidence grew, the belief grew within the squad.
Ireland’s Deirdre Duke in the 2021 European Championships
(Image: ©INPHO/Frank Uijlenbroek)
“We enjoyed the journey, there were very few expectations as it was our first experience of a major tournament bar the Europeans.”
Ireland will be well aware of the South Africans, having played them on numerous occasions. “We’re quite familiar to them also,” she pointed.
Qualification for the Games came after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out with Canada in November 2019.
In their most recent competition, Ireland were disappointed to finish fifth, but had little chance to build up early momentum as they faced the imperious hosts, the Dutch, in the first game.
Duke is made up to be a part of it. She didn’t make the original squad for the Europeans, but an injury to Sarrah Torrans saw her included and both are in the Olympics squad.
“My feeling of getting selected for the Olympics was a mixture of elation, relief and excitement,” the 29-year-old said.
“It was surreal, it was one of the moments I’ve waited my entire career for so there was a lot of emotion in my house.”
Despite missing out on the European semis, she insisted: “We can take a lot from it. We played some pretty good hockey, despite the goals we conceded.
“Tournament hockey is a roller-coaster and it’s great to remember how it feels playing in one, heading into the Olympics.
“That will serve us well compared to some countries who haven’t played in a tournament for a long time.
“But we don’t want to set expectations too high – a tournament can go either way, as was proven in the last World Cup.
“We’re realistic – out of the 12 teams, we’re ranked ninth, but we were 16th in the world when we came home with the World Cup silver.
“So anything can happen. We’re under no illusions, but we will leave no stone unturned and go as best as we can.
“We have a very changed squad from 2018, we have a new coach and a lot of new players who weren’t at the World Cup and the squad is in a really good place.”
Duke’s colleague Ayeisha McFerran says the first ever Olympic qualification for Ireland women’s hockey team is a step into the unknown.
But she believes her team will step up and embrace the biggest stage of all.
“Obviously we have the familiarity of the World Cup from before, but that’s not the same as the biggest multi-sport event in the world,” the former world goalkeeper of the year acknowledged.
Ireland’s Roisin Upton, Deirdre Duke and Ayeisha McFerran
(Image: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson)
“But we are so proud to be the first female team to qualify for Tokyo. For us it’s not about being the first but setting the stepping stones for other female teams and other hockey players to come through as well.
Yes, it’s the first but we want that path to continue and the door to be kicked wide open so that many, many other female teams and sports can do the exact same thing.”
McFerran added: “There’s no bigger stage. Hopefully they will be tuned at home. The buzz we had around the World Cup and everyone jumping on our bandwagon, the bandwagon is still going.
“So we’ll put a few trailers on the back because we love the fact that it has opened the door for the sport.
“Hopefully we can get a few more interested and it’s great just to have hockey back on the telly again.”
Ireland’s Ayeisha McFerran
(Image: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane)
McFerran acknowledged the disappointment of family, friends and supporters not being able to travel to cheer the Ireland team on against South Africa today.
“We’re a team that buzzes off that 12 man,” she said.
“The energy it brings us is just amazing and we know that a lot of our family and friends would have been heading over for something we’ve all trained for the last God knows how many years.
“The fact that it is an Olympic Games should be occasion enough to get yourself hyped up about it so we will still crack on with it and have a bit of fun along the way.”