Sarah McAuley part of Irish hockey’s new vanguard looking for Nations Cup success

A youthful women’s hockey squad are in Spain hoping to qualify for the FIH Pro League next season

A cursory look at the current women’s hockey squad stationed in Valencia and the breadth of change since the 2018 World Cup final is one of the most striking things you’d notice.

An Olympic Games has come and gone, another World Cup too last summer and while few will forget the team reaching its only ever world final against the Dutch, the names have almost all changed. Just Katie Mullan and Roisin Upton remain.

Mullan, with over 200 caps, stays in place with the consistency of her captaincy steadily remaining on point since London. But there are few others from the old guard that ripped through two scorching weeks in the London docklands. Goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran, Deidre Duke and Lena Tice, who are World Cup silver medalists, are unavailable for next week’s Nations Cup in Spain.

Coach Sean Dancer sees the forced omission of key players as a chance for others to step up in the squad.


“Ayeisha McFerran and Deirdre Duke are notable exemptions from the team lists; both have been strong performers for us this year and need this time to focus on work priorities,” says Dancer.

“We look forward to having them back with us again early next year. This provides an opportunity for our squad to grow, with [goalkeeper] Lizzy Murphy already having strong performances in practice games and the first half of her club season in Germany. I am excited to see her step up to this challenge ahead. The last few months have been an important development period for us as a group.”

“The Nations Cup presents a high-level tournament for us to use as a checkpoint on our progress. Results are important for us, and we will be focusing on managing games and doing the simple things well to give ourselves the best chance,” he added.

There are at least half a dozen names that have come through the Under-21 program and who competed in the recent Under-21 World Cup that are now establishing permanent residence in the team.

Among those is Sarah McAuley, 21-years-old and already playing with the experience of an Olympic Games and the 2022 World Cup. But the primary concern of the UCD student is hosts Spain in the opening match of a tournament that could change the nature of international competition for Ireland if they can win it.

“The men played theirs last week and we are next week,” says McAuley. “It’s a great opportunity to play in the Nations Cup and have the chance to qualify for the Pro League because you want to be ambitious and play against the best teams in the world on a more regular basis. That’s huge.”

The Nations Cup is a new yearly event that offers competition to the best-ranked teams like Ireland not currently participating in the FIH Pro League, which is an annual global competition involving hockey’s best nine national teams. It gives the winners of the Nations Cup the option to be promoted the following season into the Pro League.

This season’s Pro League women’s sides include regular Olympic and World medal winning nations: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Great Britain, Netherlands, New Zealand, China and USA.

The Netherlands won last year’s European Championships, their 11th since 1984, beating Germany 2-0 in the final. Belgium won the bronze medal beating Spain 3-1 in the play-off match. The Netherlands also beat Argentina 3-1 in the summer’s World Cup final.

Ireland will face Spain in good conditions with the weather in Valencia pleasantly mild.

“Yeah it’s a lot warmer here than Dublin,” says McAuley. “The weather is actually good. We were playing this evening against Japan [practice match] around 5pm. A great temperature, not too warm, not too cold.

“Dead right it’s a very youthful squad and kind of new at being together but there is a handful of experience as well. I guess it’s a good mix. With the Under-21 program in recent years it’s definitely groomed hockey players in Ireland. Say the Junior World Cup, there’s a about six of us from that. I think that really showed a lot of us the next level and we’ve developed, I guess, in the last couple of months.”

Just 19-years-old at the Tokyo Olympics, McAuley’s last two years have opened her eyes to life as an international player. It is a disciplined choice with significant commitment. But the rewards of competing at world level against Olympic medalists and word champions has made her decision not just the right one to make but also fulfilling.

“I do laugh out loud,” she says. “I turned 21 a couple of months ago and one the girls was saying ‘remember you were an 18-year-old and now you’re a 21-year-old’ and there were no years in between.

“I was like you know what, you’re not wrong because in Covid nothing happened and then all of a sudden hockey took off. I’ve really just been enjoying the whole thing and that’s why I do it. I love it. I wouldn’t have changed the last few years and wouldn’t have predicted them either.

“I look back at it and I think of it as a dream sometimes. I go, ‘did that really happen?’ You have to pinch yourself occasionally. I think that is [Tokyo] when I thought ‘yeah this is what I want to do for as long as possible.’ It’s a reason why you are doing it and why you want to do it again.”

She doesn’t know how many caps she has, 17 or 18. “God, I don’t know…17,” she says. Against the Spanish next week, then Italy and Korea, it won’t really matter. A cap here, a cap there. Ireland know what they are facing first up, the hosts on a mission.

“We met Netherlands in the opening game of the World Cup and they are a very, very similar team [to Spain]. I think that experience will probably help us a lot,” she says.

“They are a fast, skilful side. But I think also with the recent [practice] game against the Dutch, that’s definitely taught us about getting up to that tempo again and playing a team of that tempo.”

Another challenge and learning curve and, as ever, players hoping to step up.

Irish Squad: Holly Micklem, Lizzy Murphy, Róisín Upton (VC), Kathryn Mullan (C), Sarah Hawkshaw, Naomi Carroll, Hannah McLoughlin, Sarah McAuley, Michelle Carey, Ellen Curran, Christina Hamill, Sarah Torrans, Caoimhe Perdue, Zara Malseed, Niamh Carey. Coach Sean Dancer.

Nations Cup, Valencia (Pool A) – December 11th: Spain v Ireland; December 12th: Ireland v Italy; December 14th: Ireland v Korea; Cross-over matches begin December 16th.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times