IRELAND SENIOR WOMEN’S hopes of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics have been dealt a severe blow after Europe’s automatic qualification spots were halved.
Only the sides who finish first and second in next August’s European championships will be guaranteed a place at the Olympics, a significant reduction from 2008, when the top four qualified.
Great Britain are assured entry as hosts, meaning if England reach the final, the bronze medal side will also qualify directly.
The breakdown of places is based on world rankings, with Asia gaining an extra place as Spain finished last behind India and Japan at the recent World Cup.
This new allocation of places for the Olympics is currently being contested by a number of European nations, with the recent standard of four places from the Europeans proposed.
Irish hockey recently embarked on a controversial and ambitious plan to centralise its women’s senior side in Dublin, in a bid to qualify for the Olympics for the first time.
Ireland finished fifth at the last Europeans at Amsterdam in 2009, but heavy defeats to Germany and Spain suggested they were some distance from breaking into the top four.
Gene Muller’s side began their centralised preparation programme (CPP) last month in a bid to bridge that gap. But with less automatic qualification slots available, the scale of their task has appreciably increased.
Sides who do not qualify directly via the Europeans subsequently get another shot at securing a berth by winning six-team qualification tournaments, which are now set to feature higher-quality teams.
In addition, Ireland were yesterday dealt a very tough draw for the Europeans, and will need to breach the top two of a group featuring Germany, England and Belgium to have a chance at automatic Olympic qualification. Holland, Azerbaijan, Spain and Italy make up what looks a much less demanding pool.
The senior men’s side have been pitted against reigning champions England along with world bronze medallists the Netherlands and perennial rivals France. In the other group, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Russia lock horns.
Olympic qualification is a less onerous task for the men, with the three medallists going to London and a potential fourth should England medal.
England could yet feature former Ireland internationals Iain Lewers and Mark Gleghorne in this tournament, as they becomes eligible in 2011 to join one of the Great Britain constituent countries.
They have both since been training with the English setup and moved from their respective clubs in Holland to play with Loughborough Students this season.