The tough results for the Irish women’s Under 20 team in Sopron, Hungary, are an inevitable and important part of the nation’s progression in the sport
It’s easy to feel sorry for the 12 player roster Ireland sent to Sopron. Ireland won promotion to the A Division at the Under 20 level all the way back in 2019, when some of this current squad would still have been eligible for Under 16 ball, heck Sarah Hickey is still eligible for Under 18 play. This is not the side that won promotion from the B Division but it is the one that has to play the absolute best sides in Europe at this level.
Like I said, it’s easy to feel sorry for them but it’s also wrong.
Karl Kilbride knows that the opportunity for the squad he has in Hungary is significant. They can gain valuable experience from games against some stellar sides, like Portugal and Spain. That Ireland lost those two games by a combined 78 points is tough to swallow but it’s an inevitable and vital part of the process for the entire international programme.
Three of the U20 women’s team’s opponents made it to the tournament quarter finals. Spain is in the semi-finals and is yet to let an opponent get within single digits of them at the time of writing. These are the best of the best and the opportunity for any Irish side to face teams of this level is rare. Only once, ever, has an Irish side previously played an A division in the European championships.
Getting to this level is a step along the way but every time Ireland takes that step, it has to be prepared for the probability it will be made to take a step back. That’s the nature of international hoops, especially at underage level. It is brutal and brilliant at once. A violent meritocracy that makes you pay the dues for the generations that follow you.
The odds are this Ireland team is going to get relegated. That’s just the way it is. The previous Irish side that made it to an A division was as well. The next Irish side that makes that step up however will know that getting there is doable before entering a B division tournament. The generations that come through will be steeled by the success of those that came before them and aim to exceed them.
That’s what’s required to maintain this level. Just think back to November when the Irish fans that travelled to Amsterdam, with remarkably fortunate timing considering when the Dutch lockdown kicked in, and saw the women’s senior side play against a Dutch team with ambitions of making it to EuroBasket before coming home to see them play Czech Republic, one of the most decorated nations in the sport this century.
Many of those people that made the trip hadn’t needed to factor the green jersey into their holiday plans up until around 8 years ago at any level. Now, senior teams get to take on teams that consider Olympic medals a realistic goal. Kilbride was in the stands that night in Amsterdam and he carries the knowledge of what the road back has been like. The idea of playing A division ball, for any Irish player, was frankly laughable a few short years ago.
More nights like this will happen. The next Irish side to go up will probably have to eat a 40 burger or three. The one after? Maybe less. The one after that, well that’s when things can get really interesting.
It’s going to be a similar process for the senior teams, there’s no fooling ourselves here. Austria dished out two heavy beatings to the men’s senior team but progress was evident. The reward for that progress will be tougher tests against teams that will make Austria look like minnows. Every level in a game has its boss and you don’t get to know what’s required to beat it until you’ve faced it at least once. There are no cheat codes for progress.
In life, dreams are built from the licks we take along the way. It’s not just our dreams as individuals that grow like that but those of everyone around us, those we influence, those we work with, those we drive to excel beyond what we could reach at our own peaks.
So Finland beat Ireland on a Wednesday night in basketball. It happens. What matters more is the foundations that were put in place so Ireland could take those knocks and get back up again.