Hockey World League Semi-Final
Ireland 2 (N Daly, K Mullan) England 3 (S Haycroft, S McCallin, A Danson)
Ireland’s women pushed world number two side England – featuring nine Olympic gold medalists – all the way in Johannesburg in their final Hockey World League Semi-Final pool match.
The 3-2 loss meant Ireland finish fourth in the group, setting up a quarter-final date on Tuesday with Argentina at 12.30pm, the business end of the competition with the game doubling as a battle for a World Cup qualification ticket.
England had built a 2-0 lead in the first half, scoring from their two attacks of note with Sarah Haycroft’s attempted cross turned in unfortunately by Zoe Wilson before Shona McCallin tipped in a penalty corner move.
Ireland bounced back almost instantly after the break with Nicci Daly and Katie Mullan both shooting home on the backhand to make it 2-2.
The Green Army continued to push forward from there but the game was settled in the 43rd minute when Alex Danson rebounded from England’s second penalty corner.
Speaking afterwards, Irish coach Graham Shaw said he was: “very disappointed but proud at the same time. Our performance was absolutely superb from the very first minute to put a side like England on the back foot for long periods, we should be very proud of ourselves.”
They took the game to England from the outset with Anna O’Flanagan’s drive and shot drawing a sliding save from Maddie Hinch in the sixth minute.
It was somewhat against the run of play when Haycroft was credited with the opening goal, making use of an overlap with Ireland having a player in the sin-bin. She lined up a cross to the waiting Danson at the back post; Wilson had to try and intervene but the ball ricocheted unkindly into the goal.
Again, Shaw’s charges were the more aggressive side in the second quarter with Nikki Evans drawing a save from Hinch while O’Flanagan buzzed constantly in the circle.
However, they could not turn the possession and territory into outcomes in terms of goals or penalty corners. England, meanwhile, were efficient and scored from both of their corners, the first of which arrive three minutes before half-time when Giselle Ansley’s low push was turned in by McCallin.
Ireland came roaring back into the tie with two goals in two minutes. The first came when O’Flanagan got to the right baseline before laying back into the space at the top of the circle where Daly picked up the ball.
She delayed pulling the trigger but eventually got the ball out of her legs and onto her backhand to shoot into the right corner of the goal.
Mullan then equalised with a spectacular diving shot from the top of the circle. It was not the cleanest of connections but the ball dipped and left Hinch flummoxed, especially with O’Flanagan acting as a decoy.
“I didn’t need to motivate the players at all,” Shaw said of what brought this strong start to the second half. “They knew they played very well in the first half and we just wanted to continue that in the second. It was nice to get on the score sheet quickly after the break and we were probably a little bit unlucky to lose the game.”
Indeed, Mullan was almost in twice for a go-ahead goal in the 41st minute before England snatched back the lead. Again, their set-piece efficiency came into play as Ansley took the pace off her shot. It meant goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran could not get enough purchase on her save to evade the lurking Danson.
It left Ireland chasing the game in a physical final quarter but the chances dried up and England held on for the victory which moves them top of the group.
For Ireland, they finished fourth in the group after one win, two draws and a loss. They now face a tough date in the quarter-finals against a top six ranked side.
Shaw is relishing the challenge: “We always want to play the top teams in the world, testing ourselves and seeing where we sit. We’re not fearing anybody. We know that on our day, we can take anyone in the world.”
“They [Ireland] are so hard working, it is actually annoying”, said England’s Lily Owsley, who earned her 100th senior international cap after the match. “They just don’t give up, they fight for every ball and are getting better and better. Fair play to them, they gave us a real run for our money today and actually dominated at times but we came through it, which is the important thing.”
Ireland’s men, meanwhile, return to action on Monday at 3pm (Irish time) against Germany with a win potentially opening up an easier quarter-final spot.
All games at the Hockey World League Semi-Final in Johannesburg will be broadcast live on BT Sport.
Ireland: A McFerran, K Mullan, S McCay, L Tice, G Pinder, C Watkins, N Daly, H Matthews, A O’Flanagan, D Duke, Z Wilson
Subs: Y O’Byrne, N Evans, E Beatty, S Loughran, R Upton, L Colvin, G O’Flanagan
England: M Hinch, L Unsworth, S Haycroft, A Toman, S Townsend, A Danson, E Defroand, G Ansley, S Bray, H Webb, N White
Subs: Z Shipperley, H Martin, S McCallin, L Owsley, J Hunter, G Balsdon, A Tennant
Umpires: A MacLean (TTO), K Hudson (NZL)