History beckons Rani Rampal and company as they take on Ireland in the Hockey World Cup quarter-finals at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre on Thursday. The last time an Indian women’s team qualified for the World Cup semi-finals was way back in 1974 in Mandelieu (France), in the tournament’s inaugural edition.

It has taken four decades for India to get to the quarter-final stage (last time being in 1978). And, they’d like to make the best use of this opportunity to do what their predecessors couldn’t over the last 40 years.

To enter the semi-finals, however, India have to get past the stumbling block that is Ireland. The Green Machine shocked them 1-0 in the group stage, putting them in the brink of exit. Having lost the last two matches against them, India need to be positive to be third time lucky.

The ironlike defence of Ireland

It wasn’t that India played poorly against Ireland in the group stage. In all four quarters, the world’s 10th-ranked team made more circle entries than their opponents, ranked six places below. They also earned more penalty corners in three of the four quarters. But they just couldn’t capitalise on the chances they got.

And, this, precisely, is what Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne had said after that morale-deflating defeat.

“We had numerous opportunities to score. But they really did well. In hockey, the one who scores matters more than the one who creates more chances. We made good interceptions – I am satisfied with that – but we failed to make the most of it.”

But the credit, definitely, must go to the Irish defenders, who’d come into the match with a definite plan of blocking the Indian onslaught (even if there wasn’t much of it on that day).

Defence is Ireland’s biggest strength (along with England and Netherlands, they conceded the least number of goals during the group stage) and they will count on it, once again, against the women in blue on Thursday.

‘Once in a lifetime moment’

But the Indian team that will take on Ireland on Thursday will definitely be different to the one they beat in the group stage. Then, India lacked the aggression – they missed quite a few balls, their shoulders slumped when Ireland scored and they seemed flustered. But after a campaign-saving draw against USA and the dominating 3-0 win against Italy, India are back at their best.

The attack, during the game against Italy, had the vibrancy that it lacked for the most part in the group stage. Young Lalremsiami’s befuddling the opposition defence, pouncing on the slightest of chances and producing moments of brilliance augurs well for India, not just for this tournament.

“Against Italy, we wanted to ensure we score in the first two quarters and put pressure on them. In the previous three matches in the Pool Stage, we were doing everything except scoring. But on Tuesday, we ticked that box right and we have realised that it all boils down to the self-belief we have,” said captain Rani ahead of Thursday’s contest.

And, this, perhaps, is India’s best chance to emulate the feat of their predecessors from 1974. With their confidence high, Rani said that the team will look at Thursday’s match as an opportunity to script history.

She said, “For us, it is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to be playing the quarter-final of the biggest event in hockey. We will do everything we can to win this match and make the semi-final and the team believes we stand a realistic chance.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the last time an Indian women’s team qualified for the Hockey World Cup was way back in 1974. This has been rectified.