Women’s FIH Series Finals
Ireland 8 (A O’Flanagan 4, N Daly 2, Z Wilson, S Hawkshaw) Czech Republic 1 (J Reichlova)
Anna O’Flanagan’s quartet of goals saw Ireland move to the brink of an FIH Series Finals semi-final spot as the put in a breathtaking 8-1 win over the Czech Republic on day two at Banbridge.
Barring a horror-show against Singapore – hammered by the Czechs (5-0) and Malaysia (12-0) – they are now set to skip the quarter-final and be one win away from a guaranteed Olympic qualifier showdown.
The warning shots had already been fired inside 75 seconds from Katie Mullan before O’Flanagan’s narrow angle shot bounced awkwardly off Barbora Chechakova’s boot and face, straight to the waiting Nicci Daly to pop home.
O’Flanagan’s and Chloe Watkins’ interchanges were a joy to behold and they combined for the second before the end of the first quarter, the former spinning in front of the goalkeeper for 2-0.
The Czechs only offerred fleeting resistance as the incessant pressure, orchestrated by Lizzie Colvin and Chloe Watkins, limited them to just one circle entry of note.
In 2017, the Czechs had threatened to condemn Ireland to relegation from the top tier of European hockey. This was a measure of the sea change since then and the 2-0 half-time lead was perhaps flattering to the Czechs but the goals started to flow in the second half.
O’Flanagan feinted to shoot on her backhand before slotting the third on her forehand and Zoe Wilson scrambled the fourth over the line after Shirley McCay’s quick thinking.
Corner goals from O’Flanagan – to complete her hat trick – and Sarah Hawkshaw stretched it to six; O’Flanagan then scored a peach of a strike.Jindriksa Reichlova got one back but there was still time for Daly to round out the win with a neat touch to Mullan’s cross.
Reflecting on the tie, O’Flanagan said: “it was a great team performance; to put eight past any international team is a difficult task.
“We upped the tempo from yesterday [against Malaysia], moved the ball faster and just looked more comfortable. That was the starting point; to get four goals is amazing even if I don’t really even remember some of them!”
Asked about the difference from their travails against the Czechs at the 2017 Euros, O’Flanagan added that this complete performance shows how levels have raised since World Cup qualification.
“If you look back two years, our base level performance now is a lot higher. We do have bad days but now, if we have a bad day – like Saturday – we can still grind out a result.
“Against the Czechs a few years ago, we struggled but it wasn’t a problem for us today. It shows how far we have grown and what we can bring to these tournaments.”
Coach Gareth Grundie was pleased with the greater fluidity as a dryer pitch allowed the side to whizz the ball around at greater pace. Zoe Wilson and Roisin Upton did a great job of stepping out for interceptions while the midfield rotations nicked lots of ball in great spaces.
“It was a big step up from yesterday,” Grundie said. “We had that ball speed, that tempo which made a big difference and we played some really nice attacking hockey.
“Malaysia was the first game since the World Cup and it was always going to be tricky. The girls relaxed a bit and were able to play the hockey we wanted to play coming into the tournament today.”
Colvin, meanwhile, entered the press area with a beaming smile reminiscent of last August’s World Cup. She was a dynamo throughout and she said it was great craic to play so well in front of a good crowd just 20 minutes from Armagh where she grew up.
“We knew we had to put on a show. The job is not over but we can go out and enjoy ourselves with a bit more freedom,” she said, saying she particularly loved tricking the Czechs into “false space” where she and team mates could ravenously close down the ball.
“It was one of Gareth’s instructions – ‘make sure you smell those turnovers’. We love being aggressive, running an aggressive press and counter-attacking. I love being in that position and getting those turnovers for Anna, Deirdre Duke or Sarah Hawkshaw. That’s what we live for.”
As for the Singapore game on Tuesday afternoon, the company line was the same, following Grundie’s lead.
“We will not take anything for granted and prepare like anyone else – watch the video, prepare a gameplan for a performance on Tuesday.
** Click here for BBC NI’s Video Highlights: https://www.bbc.com/sport/hockey/48574826
“Singapore will probably look for the long ball, stay compact and make it difficult for us to break them down. We need to avoid being individual and keep playing an offensive game in the final third.”
Elsewhere in Pool A, Malaysia will meet the Czechs with both sides likely to go into the quarter-finals in second and third. They meet on Tuesday with the former needing a draw to remain in second place.
Pool B looks more up in the air. Korea are in good shape to top the group after they came back from a shaky start to beat Scotland 3-1. The Scots were 1-0 up and hit the bar early on but two goals in a minute turned things around.
Scotland are bottom after two losses and need a win over Ukraine to avoid elimination. Ukraine beat France 3-2 to leave both sides on three points.
The French side stunned Scotland 2-1 on day one, employing a side with 23 the oldest age with an average of 19.9 years overall – Paris 2024 is very much on their mind. Over a dozen of their side are eligible to play Ireland’s Under-21s in the Junior Europeans in July.
Ireland: A McFerran, R Upton, K Mullan, L Tice, G Pinder, B Barr, L Colvin, A O’Flanagan, Z Wilson, D Duke, A Meeke
Subs: S McCay, M Frazer, C Watkins, N Daly, H Matthews, S Hawkshaw, E Buckley
Czech Republic: B Cechakova, K Lacina, J Reichlova, N Hajkova, A Koziskova, T Mejzlikova, V Novakova, A Lehovcova, A Kolarova, Y Decsyova, A Vorlova
Subs: L Duchkova, K Jelinkova, R Capouchova, N Babicka, M Hlavata, N Novakova
Umpires: H Harrison (ENG), A Faias (POR)
FIH Series Finals
Saturday: Ireland 2 (B Barr, K Mullan) Malaysia 1 (S Husain); Czech Republic 5 Singapore 0
Sunday: Ireland 8 (A O’Flanagan 4, N Daly 2, Z Wilson, S Hawkshaw) Czech Republic 1 (J Reichlova); Malaysia 12 Singapore 0
Standings: 1. Ireland 6pts (+8) 2. Malaysia 3pts (+11) 3. Czech Republic 3pts (-2) 4. Singapore 0pts (-17)
Tuesday: Malaysia v Czech Republic, 12pm; Ireland v Singapore, 2pm
Saturday: Korea 5 Ukraine 0; France 2 Scotland 1
Sunday: France 2 Ukraine 3; Korea 3 Scotland 1
Standings: 1. Korea 6pts (+7) 2. France 3pts (0) 3. Ukraine 3pts (-4) 4. Scotland 0pts (-3)
Tuesday: Korea v France, 4pm; Ukraine v Scotland, 6pm