Sargent helps Ireland bounce back; South Africa see off India

Ireland 1 (Cliodhna Sargent) Azerbaijan 0

Ireland ensured their pool stage progress wasn’t in vain as they edged out Azerbaijan to earn a shot at fifth place in at the Champions Challenge I  at a sodden Belfield tonight.

Having punched above their weight to go unbeaten against higher-ranked against India, Spain and Azerbaijan in the group stages, Ireland were subsequently dumped out of the semi-final reckoning by the USA on Thursday.

But tonight’s win ensures Ireland will finish above their pre-tournament seeding of seventh;  they meet South Africa tomorrow (11.30am) with fifth place up for grabs.

Prior to the tournament, Ireland coach Gene Muller had lamented the bizarre structure that saw all eight teams advance to a quarter-final stage irrespective of pool results.

He’ll be a happier man this morning knowing Ireland are in bonus territory as last night’s win in the 5th-8th place crossover games gives them  a shot at fifth place against South Africa tomorrow (11.30am), with valuable world ranking points at stake.

“This was our most complete and demanding performance of the tournament,” Muller said. “Azerbaijan are very direct and our concentration and work ethic was tested for the whole match. The performance was even more significant as we managed to rebound from yesterday’s disappointment.”

A day of milestones saw Nikki Symmons win her 150th cap and Lizzie Colvin her 50th, while Irish umpire Carol Metchette was presented with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) Golden Whistle South Africa’s 2-0 win over India earlier in the day was the 100th international she’s taken charge of.

The majority of opportunities came at penalty corner time as the sodden conditions hampered both sides’ continuity from open play.

As has been the norm at this tournament, the teams have kept their set-piece variations to a minimum, keen to give nothing away prior to Olympic qualifiers. Irish drag-flickers Michelle Harvey and Audrey O’Flynn were unable to get any change out of the visitors’ goalie Huimin Gahramanova while Emma Gray repelled two similar efforts at the other end.

Ireland changed tack on their sixth corner with immediate success as Sargent clattered the ball to the backboard, and with ill-discpline costing the Azerbaijanis — they racked up three yellow cards — Ireland closed the game out in relative comfort.

Emma Clarke had arguably the best chance – taking two bites at the cherry with volleys from a corner breakdown – while Chloe Watkins and Julia O’Halloran are also had chances in the endgame to make things more comprehensive on the scoreboard.

Earlier, South Africa had seen off India 2-0, with goal machine Pietee Coetzee against getting the vital breakthrough before Leslie-Ann George – formerly of Old Alex – dived to sweep home a loose ball to make the game safe late on.

IRELAND: E Gray (GK), M Harvey, C Sargent, E Smyth, E Clarke, A Speers (capt), S McCay, J O’Halloran, S McCarthy, N Symmons, N Daly.
Subs: L Jacob, A Connery, A O’Flynn, C Watkins, L Colvin

AZERBAIJAN: H Gahramanova (GK), E Muzaffarova, E Jhoi, Y Vang, YS Kim (capt), K Aliyeva, J Huseynova, M Mammadova, C Shukurova, B Kim, Z Mammadova,

Subs: Y Liu, Y Gurubanova, S Pilipenko, N Safayeva, S Nuriyeva.

FIH Women’s Champions Challenge, Belfield, Dublin

5th-8th place playoffs: South Africa 2 (P Coetzee, L-A George) India 0; Ireland 1 (C Sargent) Azerbaijan 0.
Tomorrow: Semi-finals: Spain v Japan (1pm); Scotland v USA (3.30pm);
Sunday: 7th/8th place playoff: India v Azerbaijan (9am); 5th/6th place playoff: Ireland v South Africa (11.30am); 3rd/4th place playoff: 2pm; Final: 4.30pm.

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