Roisin Upton of Ireland challenges Jade Mayne of South Africa during 2017 Hockey World League Women Quarter Final 3 game between South Africa and Irelandat Wits Hockey Fields in Parktown. Photo: Aubrey Kgakatsi/BackpagePix

JOHANNESBURG – Shelley Russell doesn’t downplay the significance of qualifying for next year’s Women’s Hockey World Cup.

The SA Women’s hockey player knows that blood, sweat and tears were shed by her teammates on the road to qualification for next year’s London spectacle.

“Our ladies are all amateurs, competing against fully professional countries, so the work and sacrifices that we have to put into our qualifying efforts cannot be downplayed,” Russell says.

The team ensured they would be travelling to London in July next year after they secured a 3-0 win against Ireland at the FIH Hockey World League semi-finals.

But Russell and her teammates have had their backs against the wall for the past year. Having being denied the opportunity to compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the team has been forced to cover significant ground in its attempt to qualify for next year’s spectacle in London.

“Many of the girls make work career sacrifices for the opportunity of competing against the best in the world, on the greatest sporting stage of them all.

“Some of us are fortunate enough to have experienced participation in the Olympics, but others have been denied that privilege when they have ‘bust a gut’ to become eligible.

“The reality of us losing a valuable opportunity to earn world ranking points at the Olympics left us unfortunately dropping in world rankings. We’ve been in a catch-up situation ever since.”

The 30-year-old says missing out on competing at the Rio Olympics had made their task of qualifying for the World Cup much harder.

“We had precious little international exposure during 2016, and leading up to the tournament in 2017, so we had very little opportunity to work together as a squad.

South Africa and Ireland players shaking hands during 2017 Hockey World League Women Quarter Final 3 game between South Africa and Ireland at Wits Hockey Field in Parktown. Photo: Aubrey Kgakatsi/BackpagePix

“We had a pretty intense week of preparation in Joburg just prior to the World Cup qualifiers, but to be truthful, we were ‘ring-rusty’, off the pace, and took too long to find each other.”

But still, the team will be heading in to the World Cup with “high aspirations”.

“We have the capability of beating any of the top sides in the world, on our day,” she says.

“Realistically, it will be a tall order to pull off a World Cup victory, but that won’t prevent us from giving it the best shot that we have.”

Russell and her teammates don’t get paid a salary to represent South Africa in hockey, and neither do they have full-time hockey programmes.

“Where other countries have the edge on us is from full-time hockey programmes, all year round, and the players receiving professional income to be able to play hockey full-time.

“I think one of our downfalls is that when we are able to get together as a squad, usually before a big tour or tournament, the training is extremely intense and taxing on our bodies, resulting in some niggling injuries creeping in, resulting in some members of the team going into those tournaments in less than peak physical condition.”

Team coach Sheldon Rostron has faith. “They have the potential to do very well. However, they would need a full-time training structure throughout the year to really make their mark in the World Cup.

“The reality is that we compete against fully professional teams. We play against players that play on an international level weekly and train daily. Until we have a process like them, we will only compete and keep striving for better.”

His players have to work and often take unpaid leave to take part in events or camps.

“It’s sad to see how our players have to struggle to do what they love but also to represent their country.

“We often plead with organisations to assist us and to see the time away as sponsorship and investing experiences in the individual. The team is involved in the Investec hockey academy “where we work with the youth around the country.”

Saturday Star

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