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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 18 June, 2019
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'We knew we had to put on a show': Ireland close in on semi-final berth

After two wins over the weekend, the World Cup finalists are moving through the gears at Banbridge.

TWO DOWN, THREE to go. 

Even if Ireland, the World Cup finalists, find themselves in unchartered territory following a shift in expectations over the winter, the early evidence suggests they have not been burdened by the pressure.

pe_00805228 Ireland made it two wins from two over the weekend. Source: Jonathan Porter/Press Eye

Granted the level of opposition is not what it was in London last summer, but in going two from two at the start of their seismic FIH Final Series campaign, Ireland appear in encouragingly rude health.

Having not played a competitive game since the World Cup final, Gareth Grundie’s side were lethargic in their 2-1 defeat of Malaysia on Saturday, but with the benefit of that work-out behind them, cut loose yesterday to score eight past Czech Republic.

With conditions far more conducive to Ireland’s style of play, the Green Army thrilled a near-capacity home crowd at Havelock Park in Banbridge with a clinical and impressive display to seize control of Pool A.

Playing with more accuracy, intensity and precision, the hosts hit their straps as Anna O’Flanagan netted four goals in the 8-1 demolition of the Czechs — their biggest win since January 2017 — with Nicci Daly grabbing a brace and Zoe Wilson and Sarah Hawkshaw also getting in on the act in the second half.

While O’Flanagan was the star of the show, this was a complete performance from Ireland after the imperfections of the previous day, when Ireland were sluggish and off their best despite getting the job done.

Lizzie Colvin bossed proceedings in midfield with an influential display as Ireland fizzed the ball around on the dry surface to move within one win of a place in the semi-finals, ahead of their final pool outing against Singapore tomorrow [2pm, BBC Northern Ireland].

“It was a great team performance; to put eight past any international team is a difficult task,” O’Flanagan said afterwards. “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.”

After a tense start in their first outing on Saturday, O’Flanagan, who scored four goals in an international for the second time, added: “Saturday, we were excited to get going for our first competitive match for 10 or 11 months. There was probably some nerves there in front of a home crowd and they were pretty awful conditions.

“The Malaysians made things difficult but we dug deep and got the result and we knew we could spring on to better things.”

The result and performance was all the more impressive when you consider Czech Republic, ranked 19th in the world, had caused Ireland problems at the 2017 European Championships. How times have changed.

Anna O'Flanagan celebrates scoring her sides second goal with Chloe Watkins O'Flanagan celebrates her first goal with Chloe Watkins. Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

“If you look back two years, our base level performance now is a lot higher,” O’Flanagan added. “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.”

Ireland are now a completely different team from two years ago and, on the back of the weekend, are closing in on top spot in the pool and a semi-final berth, in a tournament that serves as the first step on the road to Tokyo 2020.

While Grundie’s side are not taking anything for granted, Tuesday’s opponents have suffered 8-0 and 12-0 defeats in their two games against Czech Republic and Malaysia so far, meaning it will be another opportunity to treat the home crowd to an eye-catching performance.

“It’s nice to get some goals, get the confidence up and score some goals,” Colvin said. “Saturday was a tough day but we knew if we went for it in the attacking quarter, we would get some goals.

We hadn’t played an international for a while and the team hadn’t been together for a few months. There probably were a few nerves but the shackles were certainly off today and we went out and had a lot of fun.

“Last summer puts us in a different place, though. We now play a confident, physical, athletic game and put a lot of pressure on from all quarters.”

With strong home support behind them in the opening two games, Ireland will hope for more of the same as the tournament progresses.

“We knew we had to put on a show,” Colvin added. “The job is not over but we can go out and enjoy ourselves with a bit more freedom.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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