Conor Harte says today’s showdown with England is Ireland’s “World Cup final” with a draw or better required against the world number seven side.
It follows Tuesday’s missed opportunity against China when the Green Machine spurned too many chances to draw 1-1 with the unfancied Asian side.England did likewise, leaving both on one point after two games with the Irish holding the slight advantage on goal difference.
Harte says it is a scenario that few envisaged pre-tournament but is relishing the challenge of getting the draw or better required for Ireland to reach a first-ever men’s World Cup knock-out stage.
“I don’t think anyone in world hockey was expecting China to be sitting where they are,” the Kinsale man said. “But before we flew over here, we knew this England game was always going to be crucial.”
Since Tuesday, they have had plenty of time to zone in on the English challenge. Having three to four days rest is an alien concept compared to the usual helter-skelter schedules, something which Harte says has been a test to avoid it festering.
“We should have won; we are not a team that goes on stats but it was pretty obvious from the feel of the game.
“There is a self-awareness required to say to ourselves ‘I need to do better’, that’s a key part of our team – you look in the mirror first before pointing the finger.
“In a jam-packed Europeans, you are mostly just surviving five games in seven or eight days. If a game doesn’t go the way you want, you get straight back out there and put things right.
“Here, it is a mental test. If you linger on it, it can eat you up but I think we all know where we fell down so we tried to put the game to bed pretty much straight away. We don’t have time to dwell on it; we are still in this and have everything to play for.”
On the plus side, Ireland have managed to get in two extra training sessions, a rarity under normal circumstances, to work on specific attacking patterns and penalty corner routines.
The fact that it is England in their way adds to the motivation with plenty of recent history to draw from. Ireland beat England to European bronze in 2015 but lost 2-1 at the 2017 Euros in the group stage in the exact same scenario that currently faces them.
That day, Ireland were in good shape before Shane O’Donoghue and David Ames tangled. Ames – one of three former Irish players in the English side along with Mark Gleghorne and captain Ian Sloan – had a hold of O’Donoghue who swung an arm to release himself with the English player theatrically hitting the deck.
While the Irish man deserved his yellow card suspension, Ames got no punishment for his antagonism and England got their key goal soon after,“It was a learning curve,” O’Donoghue said of the incident. “There is history between the two teams. It’s important to stay in the moment and not let the emotion catch you.
“I have my views and I wasn’t too fond of what Amesy did but it’s water under the bridge now.
“It was always a game it was going to come down to. It’s one for the fans and it’s always a feisty affair. It tends to be entertaining
He adds that Chna’s rise should, perhaps, not be surprising in light of the Irish women’s performances during the summer, belying their world ranking.
“It’s the same as the women’s World Cup where there were some unexpected results that occurred in the group games. That’s where these tournaments go and it’s no easy ride.
“I’m sure England and Ireland were both disappointed that we didn’t get three points against China and they were a tough team to break down.
“Now it’s come to the final game and it’s going to be a battle. Both teams will be aware of that based on previous games.”
Since then, Ireland have a good record against the English, getting the better of them twice in November in warm-up games.
Harte says his side are still underdogs against one of the best-funded programmes, saying it is one of the games the side live for.
“They have all the pressure on them and we relish the underdog tag, the fighting Irish. Ireland could play England in a chess game and there would be huge interest. The coaching staff have an easy job – they don’t have to get the players up for it!”