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Dublin: 19 °C Sunday 21 July, 2019
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Home support and set-piece strength key to Ireland's Olympic bid

The Green Army face Korea in this afternoon’s FIH Series final at Banbridge.

Ryan Bailey reports from Havelock Park, Banbridge 

IN STORMING THROUGH to today’s FIH Series final, Ireland have emphatically reinforced their standing as one of emerging forces in women’s hockey, further building on last summer’s World Cup campaign.

While the level of opposition in this tournament is not what it was in London, Ireland have shown their class throughout the campaign to safely progress through to the final round of Olympic qualifiers later this year.

Anna O'Flanagan celebrates scoring a goal with Deirdre Duke Ireland celebrate Anna O'Flanagan's goal against Czech Republic. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The primary objective of reaching that two-legged playoff tie was achieved yesterday afternoon when Gareth Grundie’s side recorded a resounding semi-final win over Czech Republic, but the Green Army are not prepared to take their foot off the pedal now.

In their four games to date, Ireland have scored 25 goals and followed up convincing pool wins over Malaysia, Singapore and Czech Republic with another commanding performance against the latter in Saturday’s last-four contest.

Having taken a significant step on the road to Tokyo 2020, Ireland remain focused on the task at hand and that’s to complete the job they started last Saturday and win the FIH Series tournament on home soil against Korea later [3.30pm].

The side ranked 11 in the world will provide Ireland with their stiffest test of the campaign by some distance, but it will be an excellent gauge for the home nation in front of what promises to be a capacity crowd in Banbridge.

As well as the incentive of lifting silverware, it is also vitally important that Ireland finish top of the pile here as they look to collect as many world ranking points to boost their chances of home advantage in that Olympic playoff in November.

“For us, getting to the final was always a goal but also winning this tournament is a goal,” Anna O’Flanagan says. “One box ticked but now we need to refocus and reset for Sunday and come out and produce another good performance.

“We’ve been working for four years for this, so absolutely relieved and delighted to be in that qualifier in November but, as we’ve said, our job isn’t finished here. We came to win this tournament.”

Ireland have been the best team in the tournament by some distance through the pool and knockout stages, with Grundie’s side — playing with conviction and confidence — moving through the gears as the week has progressed to flex their considerable muscle.

They coasted through to the semi-finals and then, facing into the biggest game of the campaign yesterday, achieved their target in some style and with plenty left to spare too.

A pair of penalty-corner goals, scored by Shirley McCay and Zoe Wilson, set Ireland on their way and having dominated much of the contest, they sealed the win in the second period through Sarah Hawkshaw and O’Flanagan, who is the tournament’s top-scorer on six.

Zoe Wilson takes a shot on goal Zoe Wilson shoots. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The wet conditions had forced Ireland to bide their time against a physical Czech side but once McCay’s slap from the top of the circle found its way into the corner, the outcome was never in doubt.

Of Ireland’s 25 goals, 11 have come from penalty corners and, as they did during their run to the World Cup final, Ireland have shown their strength at the set-piece with nine different players scoring from well-worked moves.

For McCay’s goal, Roisin Upton acted as the dummy while Wilson’s strike a couple of minutes later saw Ireland switch the ball right through Deirdre Duke. 

“We’ve worked really hard on them and we’ve plenty in our locker on our day,” McCay explains.

“Those are the moments for us we need to execute and we don’t have a specialist corner or a go-to or anything, but we have three or four really top-class players at the top of the circle there. Injectors, trappers, everything. We know we can rely on our set-pieces. 

We’re quite hard to read and at any stage when the ball comes out, we can go left, right or back into the middle. We’ve got a lot in our locker and when you’re standing in defence that can be difficult as opposed to just having a flicker each time.

Against a tighter defence, Ireland will be hoping to use all of their options to break Korea down, with the prolific O’Flanagan leading from the front with another goal against the Czechs.

“It’s always nice as a striker to get on the scoresheet but I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some great team-mates to put me in,” she adds. “Maybe I’m just in the right place at the time, but it’s a team performance and we’ve scored a lot of good team goals.

“Obviously, Sunday is going to be massive again as we need as many ranking points as we can, and even for momentum, just to make sure we’re growing in confidence.”

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Ryan Bailey

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