Ayeisha McFerran was among the first of the Irish players to congratulate Grace O’Flanagan after Ireland’s epic win over India which has all but secured World Cup qualification via the World League 3 tournament in Johannesburg, writes John Flack.
O’Flanagan came off the bench after McFerran had been sin binned in the first-half and, with her first touch, saved a penalty stroke and went on to make several important stops as India threatened to add to their tally.
Then it was left to Katie Mullan and Lizzie Colvin to score a brace of corners to seal the win which leaves Ireland well placed to book a ticket to London next year.
“Of course I was relieved that Grace saved the stroke, she stepped up having not played all tournament and to be able to do that was certainly a turning point in the game.” said McFerran.
“When the final whistle came we were very excited as a whole squad, we knew that we could do it from the get go, but to hear the final whistle come was proof to ourselves that we could step out and do it!
“I was very happy for Grace and the whole team. This tournament was a roller coaster of emotions for everyone, players and staff so to be able to stay level and come fighting in the final game is something we’re all very proud of.
“Going to the World Cup with this squad is proof that everything all squad members have sacrificed to get here has been worth it.
“The tournament itself, of course, had its ups and downs, we feel we put in very positive performances against teams higher ranked than us, but we proved to the hockey world that we are a force to be reckoned with.
“Valencia [in 2015] taught us all that tournaments don’t always go as planned, but it’s about controlling your emotions and just keep going.”
Zoe Wilson, a strong candidate for Irish player of the tournament, was in agreement with McFerran as she reflected on the seventh place finish.
“What a journey this tournament has been, I felt that they way we challenged teams above our ranking gave us an immense belief to go into this final game. For us, it was a last chance at realistically qualifying for the World Cup.” said the Belfast Harlequins player.
“When Grace came on for the first time in the tournament I had total faith in her, she prepares so thoroughly before each and every game and when she saved the penalty stroke I really felt that it was a turning point in our game, good fortune was finally on our side.
“At half time Graham [Shaw] just reminded us of our game plan and the hard work we had put in to date, be patient and results would come as we knew when we scored more goals would come.
“It was a long time to be in a tournament and maintain concentration because if you weren’t playing you were researching the next team or debriefing. So it was physically and mentally challenging but a great learning experience.
“I have no doubt those early mornings with (Belfast Giants ice hockey player) Colin Shields at the gym in Belfast paid dividends, especially when fitness was tested at altitude and at times during the game when we were reduced in numbers so I have a lot to thank him for.
“I believe we showed how good a physical shape we were in going into the tournament and this gave us confidence knowing we could play at the pace we wanted to play at and that no team would outrun and outwork us.
“As for Valencia, we had a talk at the beginning of the trip as it was important for us all to share experiences of those who have been here before and those who haven’t been in this pressured environment before.
“And the message that came across was that we are a whole different team now and we know we can compete with the best it’s just a matter of doing it on the pitch and having the experience of some of the girls that have been in this situation before it would stand us in good stead.”
Team manager Arlene Boyles, who played for Ireland in their last World Cup appearance in 2002, says that following the disappointment of an under-par display in losing to South Africa, determination was key.
“We just knew if we stuck to the process we would get the result. The girls didn’t panic at any stage and we talked a lot about the fear factor after the SA game. We had to be brave and losing was not an option.” she said.
“Grace’s save was a turning point and we took a real boost from that. We had to dig deep and we did. The first corner was called as we saw a gap and it was executed perfectly. Lizzie’s goal was a top drawer strike.”
Belfast Harlequins midfielder Colvin scored the winner and revealed, her improvised effort after controlling a mis-trap wasn’t her first such strike.
“It was a great match and nice way to finish the tournament after the disappointment of the South Africa game.” she said.
“I don’t usually score the goals – five in total I think. That one was a carbon copy of the one I got against Chile last summer in the four nations.”
Now though, it’s a case of sit back, wait and then celebrate again after a joyous dress- rehearsal after the final whistle on Saturday, thanks largely to the amazing Grace…..