Gierts’ triple ends second Irish Olympic dream

FIH Road to London Women’s Olympic qualifying tournament
Ireland 1 (Audrey O’Flynn) Belgium 4 (Sofie Gierts 3, Erica Coppey)

A second Irish Olympic hockey dream went up in smoke within seven days as Belgium proved an all-round superior force in Kontich yesterday, barely offering a glimmer of hope in a comprehensive result.

Sofie Gierts did the damage, her 19-minute hat-trick sending Ireland into a spin and thought Ireland won a
wealth of penalty corners from the on, it never looked an even contest.

Audrey O’Flynn admitted as much afterwards as Ireland struggled in the face some early-Spring heat and a vociferous home support to get off the ground.

“The girls said after it was like living a nightmare,” said O’Flynn. “The match just flew by. They were just winning every 50-50 ball, I don’t know, we just never got in to it, never got going. Ah, it’s just so disappointing.

“We said before the match that we’ve put in two years of hard work for this but we have to show that on the pitch – and we didn’t show it today. We just didn’t perform in any area of the pitch,” she added.

After Gierts early blitz, the remaining 50 minutes was a physical battle but Ireland’s inability to score from corners – bar O’Flynn’s eighth of the tournament in the 57th minute – meant there was never any drama.

And Muller added it was a rough day for his young side against a Belgian outfit lower ranked in the world but flying high on confidence.

“Technically, we were not good enough today, didn’t score on our corners and couldn’t get back into the game and whenever we had a sight of it, we’d let in another one.”

Gierts got Belgium off to a dream start when she smashed home a brilliant volley in the 12th minute.

Muller questioned afterwards whether the striker had controlled it dangerously over her shoulder after a long corner move saw the ball loop up and into her path. The Irish defence parted and she controlled deftly before applying a bullet to the bottom corner.

If that was contentious, the second goal was a travesty as umpire Amy Hassick pinged Ireland for a stick chop on Jill Boon. It looked a poor choice of tackle but scarcely worthy of the penalty stroke which ensued.

Gierts roofed it with the minimum of fuss and two minutes later she swept home a simple penalty corner move from Stefanie de Groof’s disguised pass.

Nineteen minutes gone and it was as good as game over. Ireland did win eight penalty corners but the majority were blocked down or miscued.

Nikki Evans did have the ball in the net after a powerful baseline run but her initial shot was saved off the line by Anouk Raes onto the Irish attacker’s body, a penalty corner given instead.

The hosts looked the more likely side to add to their tally while neither side were able to capitalise on a spate of sin-binnings which saw Emma Smyth, Anouk Raes and Gierts all binned.

When O’Flynn’s goal finally did come with 13 minutes to go, Belgium responded instantly as Erica Coppey volleyed home from close range within 60 seconds.

Where it leaves Ireland now remains to be seen as Ireland reached a playoff for the Olympic Games for the first time while Muller oversaw a victory over a higher ranked side, Spain, for the first time in a major tournament.

“They were the better team, they were technically better, they scored at moments of ascendancy, we just couldn’t get a foothold in the game,” the coach added. “We had moments, but it wasn’t enough. In the end you just haemorrhage energy, it’s very difficult to turn it around.

“There were one or two controversial decisions that went against us, the stroke was a big moment – no one would have complained if that was given as a penalty corner, there was surprise everywhere – and their last goal came off a player’s body. But they still deserved to win, they have been the best team at this event, and deserve to go to London. I congratulate them.”

“This Irish team has improved enormously to get to this stage but there wasn’t enough in us; not technically, not physically so we could never create that tension,” he said afterwards.

But the manner in which Belgium dismantled this Irish side suggests the pace of improvement needs to be yet more rapid.

With the conclusion of this Olympic cycle, Muller’s contract with the IHA has now expired and will subject to review in the coming months.

He brought about the introduction of the CPP which had helped elevate the training time and methods employed. It is quite the undertaking, changing methods in order to achieve the Olympic dream but one which he praised his charges for taking on.

“My word, the players have been unbelievable, the amount they have put into this programme has been exceptional – I’m really appreciative and respectful of their efforts,” he said.

“As a group of people they decided they wanted to chase something, it’s so commendable, they put everything they had in to it. It’s just a pity they didn’t get what they came for. But we can have no regrets, we gave it everything.”

After two weeks of hockey taking a major portion of the limelight, meanwhile, it is now a matter of how to capitalise on what were two memorable weeks. Leading RTE news sports bulletins on days when Cheltenham was vying for airwaves, front page pictures in the Irish Times, the follow-up of two Olympic weeks takes away from the promotional opportunities.

But the passion and emotion caught the national conciousness, albeit briefly, and will hopefully be the lasting legacy of two campaigns cut off at last and one to build on rather than being consigned to a brief segment on “Reeling in the Years” in a decade’s time.

The soon to be inaugurated world league will be announced in the coming weeks while 2013’s Champions Challenge and European championships provide the next step.

** Photos courtesy of Ian Hall/Hall’s Pictorial

Ireland: E Gray, N Symmons, S McCarthy, C Sargent, E Smyth, L Colvin, E Clarke, L Jacob, A Speers, A Connery, A O’Flynn
Subs: M Harvey, S McCay, N Daly, N Evans, M Crowley
Belgium: N Khouzam, A Raes, L Danhaive, E Coppey, G Valcke, L Cavanaille, C de Vos, B Nelen, J Boon, S Gierts, S de Groof
Subs: A Gerniers, L van Lindt, E Sinia, A-S van Regemortel, H Delmee

FIH Road to London Women’s Olympic qualifying tournament, results:
Final: I
reland 1 (A O’Flynn) Belgium 4 (S Gierts 3, E Coppey)
3rd/4th playoff: Spain 5 Russia 1
5th/6th playoff: France 5 Mexico 1

Partners of The Hook