Athlon Car League FIH Road to London – women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament
Ireland 1 (C Watkins) Belgium 1 (Jill Boon)
Ireland’s women were left fretting the possible absence of top scorer Audrey O’Flynn for their all-or-nothing Olympic qualifying game tomorrow in Kontich, Belgium.
The rangy Cork woman has been a revelation in the Road to London tournament, netting seven times in four games this week from penalty corners, while also weighing in with a string of significant tackles
But a rogue Raquel Huertas’ stick 30 seconds from the famous win against Spain on Thursday – which guaranteed Ireland’s progression to the final – ruled her out of last night’s 1-1 dry-run against Belgium in the final group game.
And Irish coach Gene Muller admitted after the game it was a race against time to get her fit.
“Her fitness is the biggest issue. She took a really nasty whack on the jaw and had difficulty moving her neck this morning,” he said.
Without her drag-flicking capabilities, Ireland looked a little light up front, seeing penalty corner efforts from Cliodhna Sargent and Michelle Harvey both charged down.
Indeed, the Belgians looked the sharper all over the pitch with Anouk Raes a constant threat while Jill Boon had them in the lead after nine minutes from a penalty stroke – awarded amid a mess of bodies in front of Pamela Smithwick.
Watkins ghosted in at the back post to level 14 minutes later, finishing off good work by Emma Smyth and Miriam Crowley, before the intensity notably dropped in the second half.
There were a couple of injury scares to Watkins – requiring a couple of steri-strips above her right eye – and Emma Clarke, holding her stomach in pain on half-time, but both will probably be fit for the final.
With little to play for, Ireland sat back into a half-court press, allowing the hosts to play the ball aimlessly around the back for long periods.
It began to draw ironic cheers from the capacity crowd as the game looked to be petering out in the second half before Raes had one effort plucked off the line by Shirley McCay.
Whilst the low-energy nature suited Muller, he said his charges will need to up their game massively on Sunday to draw a favourable result.
“We weren’t the best team on the pitch. They were. While the result didn’t matter, we were lucky to get away with a draw. But things will be different on Sunday. Both teams probably considered this game as a necessary evil. You don’t want to give away too much and have to strategically use players. What we did tonight was with the final in mind.”
As for lessons learned about the final opposition, Muller added such things were fairly negligible after five games inside a week as well as three meetings between the teams in the tournament build-up.
“At this stage of the tournament, there’s not an awful lot you can hide. Belgium didn’t really change a whole lot. We played a lot of half court tonight which is probably strategically smart.
“We may lose some rhythm and it’s always a fine balance. We need to get our feet on the ground again. It’s really tough to get two peak performances within 24 hours.
“The last five games we’ve tied two, lost three narrowly. This game followed that trend and we’re going to need to be good and need to be sharp if we’re going to win this.”
The sides play again at 3.30pm (Irish time) on Sunday for the sole Olympic place on offer from this tournament. RTE will broadcast the game live from 3.20pm while Eurosport 2 will also have coverage of the game.
** Photos courtesy of Stanislas Brochier
Ireland: P Smithwick, M Harvey, M Crowley, C Sargent, E Smyth, E Clarke, A Speers, S McCay, S McCarthy, N Symmons, C Watkins
Subs: N Evans, L Jacob, A Connery, L Colvin, N Daly
Belgium: N Khouzam, A Raes, L Danhaive, E Coppey, G Valcke, L Cavenaile, 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
Day five results: France 5 Mexico 4; Russia 1 Spain 1; Ireland 1 (C Watkins) Belgium 1 (J Boon)
Final group standings: 1. Belgium 13pts (+21) 2. Ireland 13pts (+13) 3. Spain 7pts (+6) 4. Russia 7pts (-2) 5. France 3pts (-9) 6. Mexico 0pts (-29)