Hockey World League Semi-Final
Ireland 2 (M Nelson, S O’Donoghue) South Africa 0
In previewing the Hockey World League Semi-Final, members of the Irish men’s squad sought to downplay the run of fine results in 2017 but the adage “winning is a habit” showed its truth on day one against South Africa.
For spells, the Johannesburg hosts had control and chances to make this an uncomfortable day for Ireland. But, in the key moments in either circle, the Green Machine had the goods to grind out a win to get their campaign off on the right foot with Matthew Nelson and Shane O’Donoghue scoring the goals.
Nelson opened the scoring 10 minutes in. It o owed much to Stephen Cole’s turnover in midfield as well as Rhett Halkett’s howler as the experienced defender contrived to miscontrol Cole’s cross. It fell perfectly for Nelson two yards out to tap in.
His Lisnagarvey club mate Neal Glassey almost made it two from a sumptuous passing move but Rassie Pieterse smothered the chance.
The second and third quarters, however, were run for the most part by the hosts but a youthful forward line made numerous technical errors to spurn good moves. When they did gel and won corners, David Harte stood tall, keeping out three strikes before half-time.
There were hearts in mouths when Harte deflected one shot onto the post-man with umpire David Dowdall awarding a stroke before calling a video referral on himself. After a few quick replays, the stroke was downgraded to a corner that Harte booted away.
South Africa carried that momentum into the second half, winning two more corners. One was not stopped while the other drag from Matt Guise-Brown was charged down by Jeremy Duncan.
Ireland rode out that rocky patch with John Jackson, in particular, cleaning up some frantic moments in a packed Irish circle.
When they countered, though, Ireland had much more thrust to their attacks with Sean Murray enjoying a fine night alongside O’Donoghue in midfield.
Having defended five penalty corners, Ireland scored from their first – won by Alan Sothern who drew a shoulder barge from Jonty Robinson – with O’Donoghue powering home.
South Africa’s belief capitulated thereafter and Craig Fulton’s side closed out the win – their 12th in 13 games – with something to spare, looking the more likely to add more goals.
“We are happy with the three points although it was a tight game,” Fulton said afterwards. “South Africa had a few good chances but we finished strong in the fourth quarter which was pleasing.”
Tuesday’s date with Olympic silver medalists Belgium, however, looks a much sterner test after they thrashed Egypt 10-0 in the other group game.
The coach added that the side is relishing the challenge ahead and in good shape to push on.
“The camp is really positive; we have a great environment and everyone is in good form. The altitude is very manageable now that we have been here for seven days so we have fully acclimitised.”
Ireland: D Harte, J Jackson, J Bell, C Cargo, A Sothern, E Magee, S O’Donoghue, S Murray, J McKee, P Gleghorne, S Loughrey
Subs: M Bell, M Nelson, N Glassey, C Harte, J Duncan, S Cole, J Carr
South Africa: R Pieterse, J Robinson, A Smith, T Drummond, J Hykes, O Mvimbi, M Guise-Brown, R Halkett, D Cassiem, J Eustice, I Malgraff
Subs: R Rozenburg, D Sibbald, R Julius, T Kok, D Bell, N Ntuli, R Curtis
Umpires: R van Eert (NED), D Dowdall (ENG)