Irish senior women’s coach Darren Smith says that his fresh-faced defensive unit showed rapid improvement in their second battle of the week with New Zealand on Wednesday night as part of an encouraging week at the Electric Ireland Four Nations competition in Dublin.
With Audrey O’Flynn out for the week and Shirley McCay picking up a half-time head injury in the final, Ali Meeke, Yvonne O’Byrne and Hannah Matthews – the most recent addition to Smith’s panel – played the majority of the final 35 minutes.It coincided with Ireland’s best half of the four against the Olympic semi-finalists, outletting more effectively after a tough first half that saw many turnovers at the hands of Krystal Forgesson and Olivia Merry’s pocket-press.
And Smith paid tribute to the side’s rigidity and ability to use that platform to push on in the second half, allowing the midfield more chances to take the ball on the move rather than in static positions in the first half.
“We defended better, especially penalty corners,” he told The Hook. “Back on Saturday, New Zealand scored five from five so that is going to kill you. We were a lot more sound from defensive corners while we tackled in and around the circle a bit better.
“Hannah Matthews, Yvonne O’Byrne and Ali Meeke were more decisive when they got the ball on the sidelines. It’s not a great place to receive the ball but I thought they did better when they got it out there.
“It took us a while to get to the flow of the match and we were a bit stationary but, in the second half, I thought we made some quite good attacking
movements and began to play quite a bit better. It took us a while just to take free hits. It works much better when we take them quicker and also if our midfielders arrive into space so they can flow with the ball rather than stand and wait.”
Matthews came into the tournament with two caps to her name but played her sweep-pass looks a strong addition, picking out Deirdre Duke for a sweet goal against Canada and also provided some impetus against the Black Sticks, notably when playing in Nicci Daly for a chance that banged the outside of the goal.
Speaking specifically about the Loreto defender, Smith is delighted with her progression: “We are really happy with her. I thought she played well in the Leinster league – a stand-out – and had a good IHL. We were keen to see her in training and weren’t disappointed.
“She played well in Italy [on debut]; when a new player comes in, you want to have some patience and allow them to settle but she has shown grit, determination, a powerful pass and I am really positive about her and think she had a good series here.”
As for the competition as a whole, getting to play his native New Zealand twice was a tough ask but one that gives a real-time focus of the pace upper echelons of world hockey are and can only benefit the side in Smith’s eyes
“Any time you get a chance to play a top eight – even a top 12 team – you pick up that pace and aggression at which they play, especially New Zealand who have a real tempo and speed to their play.
“For us to do well internationally, we need to get a speed to our play to be able to cope with what the opposition are doing. We did a heck of a lot better today than Saturday. The value of playing New Zealand or a top 12 is fantastic for that and we have had a few opportunities recently, playing South Africa, USA and Korea. For the most part, we have done not too bad recently barring Saturday!”
** Over the course of the tournament, Declan Hughes caught up with a number of Irish players. He spoke to Cliodhna Sargent about her 150th cap, Chloe Watkins on her 100th cap, Deirdre Duke’s pair of goals against Canada and Emma Smyth about the Chilean game