Ireland put the USA to the sword in the World League today and took a step closer to Rio 2016
Ireland stunned world number five side USA 2-0 with goals from Megan Frazer and Anna O’Flanagan to ensure they finish in the top two of Pool B of the World Hockey League Round 3 in Valencia today.
It means they end the group with three wins from four outings – two of them against higher-ranked opposition – to comfortably earn a quarter-final berth.
That knock-out game will be against world No 7 side China on Thursday.
A top-three finish at the event would ensure Ireland qualification for the Olympic Games; however, a top-six finish could also book a spot at Rio 2016 if permutations at the five continental championships go in their favour.
If those championships are won by sides that have already qualified for Rio through the World League then further places will become available to the sides ranked further down the pecking order in the World League rankings.
And should Darren Smith’s charges make it to Rio 2016 they will make history, becoming the first Irish team to qualify for the Games in a team sport since the men’s soccer team of London 1948.
It was a smash and grab performance, built on a huge defensive effort as the US won eight penalty corners and drew a series of last-ditch tackles from a gutsy Irish defence.
From the few attacks Ireland had, they showed real menace.
Frazer served notice of her intent with one backhand shot that was brilliantly tipped around the post by Jackie Briggs before she opened the scoring. Gillian Pinder set it up with a neat turn before laying it into her captain’s path and she pinged home a low finish.
USA dominated the play thereafter. They had already seen a couple of chances well saved – including one from Melissa Gonzalez spectacularly batted away by Cliodhna Sargent.
The second half was one-way traffic with the US corner count mounting. Shirley McCay spent ten minutes in the sin-bin for an over-exuberant tackle to pen the side back further.
US corner strikers Rachel Dawson and Lauren Crandall, though, were stumped either by the helmet of Emma Gray or the diving blocks of Yvonne O’Byrne, Sargent and Anna O’Flanagan while Hannah Matthews and Ali Meeke were immense at the back, too.
It kept them clinging on for the result and, from their sole attack of the second half, with 70 seconds to go, Ireland broke through Frazer who laid on for O’Flanagan to sweep home the second goal.
Speaking afterwards, defensive lynchpin Sargent said of her side’s efforts: “We knew we needed a huge performance to get a result against really tough opponents.
“They are really fit, really fast. We knew we had to play equally as hard to get a result.
“When it comes towards the end of the game, you are willing to do everything you can to keep the ball out of the goal. Putting your body on the line is the least you can do.”
Ireland had lost three times to the US in the past month in warm-up games but captain Frazer said the result “was not a complete surprise”.
She said: “I knew we had it in us; we played them three times in the past month and it served us well and learned a lot about them.
“All credit to our coaching staff. They put together a fabulous tactical plan and we executed well. We had belief from the beginning.”
Meanwhile, coach Smith said it was “a result to be cherished”.
“At times in the third and fourth quarter, we had to defend well but we did it,” said Smith. “The defensive corner unit did well and it was nice to grab the second goal at the end.
“It was a really important win. First and foremost, we wanted to finish as high up in the group as possible and to beat the world number five side, World Cup semi-finalists, is something to be cherished. The higher up the pool you finish give you momentum for the semi-finals.
“All of our defenders did a fantastic job in front of Emma Gray. She made some good saves but, at times, she wasn’t called on as much as the US would have liked. That was because of the work we did in front of her, defending with numbers and tackling really well. To keep a clean sheet is fantastic.”
Ireland: E Gray, Y O’Byrne, C Sargent, E Smyth, N Evans, S McCay, M Frazer, L Colvin, N Daly, H Matthews.
Substitutes: K Mullan, G Pinder, A Connery, C Watkins, K Dillon, A Meeke, A McFerran.
USA: J Briggs, M Gonzalez, K Kolojejchick, R Dawson, J Witmer, J Reinprecht, K Reinprecht, K O’Donnell, K Falgowski, L Crandall, A Manley.
Substitutes: S Fee, M Vittese, M Kasold, P Selenski, K Sharkey, C van Sickle, A Widdall.
Sourced from RTÉ