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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 18 February, 2020
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Ireland far from their best but take first step on the long road to Tokyo

The World Cup finalists recorded a narrow victory over Malaysia in their FIH Final Series opener at Banbridge.

Ireland 2 
Malaysia 1 

Ryan Bailey reports from Havelock Park, Banbridge 

A LONG WAY from London, and a million miles from Tokyo in the Banbridge rain, but Ireland’s bid to reach the 2020 Olympic Games is up and running in victorious, if not convincing, fashion.

In their first competitive game since last summer’s World Cup final, and first in over a year on home soil, Ireland took their first meaningful step on the road to Tokyo thanks to goals in either half from Bethany Barr and captain Katie Mullan.

Ireland players celebrate Beth Barr scoring irelands first goal Ireland celebrate Beth Barr's early goal. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The tournament hosts were made to work hard by a dogged Malaysian outfit and had to produce a late rearguard action to hold onto the points, despite dominating large periods of the game. 

Barr, on her tournament debut in green, deflected home inside the opening minutes, before Mullan doubled the advantage in the second period, but Malaysia, ranked 22nd in the world, were not prepared to roll over.

It ought to have been a lot more comfortable for Ireland in the closing stages but a lapse in concentration in defence allowed Malaysia set up a nervy finish, after Siti Husain rifled home when the loose ball fell to her in the circle. 

In the end, Ireland had enough to get over the line, much to the relief of the 2,000 home supporters at Havelock Park, but they will need to be an awful lot better as the campaign progresses. 

With Graham Shaw departed for pastures new, interim head coach Gareth Grundie oversaw a win in his first game in charge as they safely negotiated the first hurdle of this FIH Final Series campaign, ahead of further pool games against Czech Republic and Singapore here on Sunday and Tuesday respectively.

Conditions meant the quality of the game was some way off the level of performance Ireland produced last summer, but they managed to move sufficiently through the gears as the afternoon wore on to get the job done.

Barr and Mullan made the difference on the scoreboard but Sarah Hawkshaw, another new face from the World Cup, impressed in the forward line, while Chloe Watkins, Gillian Pinder and Ali Meeke all provided classy touches at different intervals.

In defence, Grundie’s side were kept honest by Malaysia and the hosts will have been disappointed by the concession of a late goal, given it was an otherwise quiet day between the posts for Ayeisha McFerran. 

Ireland, with 10 of their starting XV retained from the World Cup, got off to the perfect start as Barr — the one outlier in the team from London — provided the finishing touch to Shirley McCay’s slap from the top of the circle inside three minutes. 

The heavy downpour at the start of the game meant the early exchanges were slow in tempo but the hosts worked hard to inject intensity into proceedings, with their three penalty corners to one a fair reflection of the opening quarter. 

Chloe Watkins and Surizan Awang Chloe Watkins in action. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

For all Ireland’s possession, Grundie’s side at times lacked the required execution and patience to break down an admirably dogged Malaysian outfit, who themselves posed a threat on the counter-attack.

Roisin Upton and Zoe Wilson twice shut the door on the Malaysians at one end, and at the other, the latter came within inches of doubling Ireland’s lead from their fourth penalty corner, only to see her powerful strike flash just wide. 

It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though. Malaysia were not overawed by the occasion and had the chance of the half, but Norazlin Sumantri got the ball stuck under her feet with only McFerran to beat. 

From the restart, Ireland seized control of the ball again, enjoying large tracts of possession and territory, and got their reward late in the third quarter when Mullan doubled the lead from a slick move from a sideline ball.  

With the Malaysian defence still shuffling back, Hawkshaw — the older sister of Ireland U20 Grand Slam-winning captain David — moved it inside for the unmarked Colvin, who in turn picked the captain out in the circle to reverse it home.

There was more than a suspicion of a backstick finish, but with no argument from the opposition and the lack of a video referral system in this tournament, the goal stood and Ireland had the insurance score. 

They needed it in the end because, even though pushing for a third goal, Ireland were pegged back at the other end as Husain fired past McFerran, leaving more than a few of the crowd biting their nails in the closing minutes. 

Ireland very nearly added a third before the final hooter but three players in white were unable to get their stick to the ball at the back post after excellent work from Deirdre Duke on this near side. 

Either way, Ireland are up and running and on the road to Tokyo.

IRELAND: Ayeisha McFerran (GK), Beth Barr, Elena Tice, Lizzie Colvin, Hannah Matthews, Shirley McCay, Katie Mullan (captain), Chloe Watkins, Nicci Daly, Megan Frazer, Anna O’Flanagan.

Subs: Emma Buckley (GK), Roisin Upton, Gillian Pinder, Sarah Hawkshaw, Zoe Wilson, Deirdre Duke, Ali Meeke.

MALAYSIA: Farah Yahya (GK), Nuraini Rashid, Norsharina Shabuddin, Siti Ruhani (captain), Juliani Din, Norazlin Sumantri, Hanis Onn, Surizan Awang, Norfaiezah Saiuti, Nuramirah Zulkifli, Kirandeep Gurdip.

Subs: Huzaimah Aziz (GK), Hasliza Ali Noor, Safiqah Mat Isa, Fazilla Sylvester, Fatin Sukri, Siti Husain, Nurmaizatulhanim Syafi. 

Umpires: Mariana Reydo (Argentina) and Lelia Sacre (Canada).

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Ryan Bailey

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