The Final Two

'I've been asking the Dutch for three years for a bloody game. They don't have a choice now'

Graham Shaw and Ireland are relishing a crack at the defending world champions today.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Lee Valley Stadium, London 

AND THEN THERE were two, it just so happens that nobody could have envisaged that it would be Ireland — ranked 16th in the world — who are the final team standing in the way of all-conquering Netherlands and their eighth World Cup crown.

Netherlands v Australia - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Semi Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Netherlands advanced past Australia in a shootout. Steven Paston Steven Paston

The Dutch moved one step closer to defending the title they lifted four years ago with a tense shootout win over Australia in Saturday’s semi-final, as they set up a clash with Ireland in the gold medal match [4.30pm, RTÉ 2, BT Sport].

After having to settle for silver at the Rio Olympics, Netherlands have been in ruthless form under coach Alyson Annan in recent years and want to ensure they don’t slip-up again at the final hurdle in London later today.

Ireland’s historic run to a first-ever World Cup final has been the fairytale story of this tournament and while the odds are stacked heavily against Graham Shaw’s side this afternoon, Netherlands aren’t taking the challenge lightly.

The Dutch have been doing their homework on the threats Ireland pose, particularly from penalty corners which have been a productive area for the Green Army during this campaign, and Annan said she hasn’t been surprised by Ireland’s performances.

“They are one of the few teams here who move the ball quickly, play simply and work so hard,” she remarked. “They are very confident in the way they play and I don’t think we should underestimate them. There has to be a reason why they are in the final.

“We have done our homework; after the first [Irish match], we did video on them. To be perfectly honest, they were in a very difficult pool but finished first which is fantastic so we took notice very early on and started doing the work early, knowing there was a possibility we would meet them.

“They have played some great some matches so we shouldn’t be surprised.”

Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel, who admitted Netherlands received a wake-up call after being pegged back by Australia before seeing them off in a shootout, echoed her coach’s sentiments.

“You need a wake-up call in a tournament,” she said. “Before the tournament, there is usually a game you can lose but we didn’t have that. This was our wake-up call. Tomorrow has to be better. Ireland is a good team, they deserve to be in the final and we have to better than we were today.

“We know they [Ireland] have played great hockey. They are fighters, defend with the whole team, attack with the whole team and there is a reason they are in the final. We are number one, they are number 10 or something like that but tomorrow it’s 0-0.”

Ireland v India - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Quarter Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Ireland head coach Graham Shaw. Steven Paston Steven Paston

That will be the attitude Ireland go into the final with, and certainly they’ll need no further motivation for what is, without doubt, the biggest game in Irish hockey history.

But, speaking after Saturday’s win over Spain, Shaw said he’d fancy a crack at Netherlands, before their result against Australia had been confirmed.

“I’ve been asking the Dutch for three years for a bloody game and they won’t bloody play us, so they don’t have a choice now,” the Ireland coach joked. “If we meet them, we meet them. On paper, everyone knows the Dutch have been incredible the last few years, particularly since Rio.

“I don’t know how many goals they’ve conceded in the last three or four tournaments but it’s very little. It’s a World Cup final…I can’t believe I’m saying that…it’s a World Cup final and we’re going to have to beat the best. Whoever it is, it is.”

The Dutch have been in impressive form during the tournament and prior to the narrow win over Australia in the last four, had swatted aside all challenges with minimal fuss, scoring 28 goals and conceding just one in four games.

When Shaw’s comments were put to her, Netherlands coach Annan responded: “We have a very limited window to play matches. We are not together a lot so when we do play our practice matches, we have to make choices. When it comes to Argentina or Ireland, we will choose Argentina but maybe now things will be difficult.”

For now, the exalted stage of the World Cup final will have to do.

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