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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 28 February 2021

'There is winning and there's learning, and this is a massive learning for us'

Ireland captain Katie Mullan thanked the home crowd for their support throughout the FIH Series tournament in Banbridge.

NOBODY QUITE KNEW how to react. As Ireland pressed forward for an unlikely equaliser, the sold-out crowd retained hope of a late comeback, only for the atmosphere inside Havelock Park to be completely drained when Jina Kang landed the knockout blow for Korea.

Ireland had been in cruise control through this tournament but, unable to find the extra gear when required on Sunday, fell short in their bid to win the FIH Series final in front of an expectant home support.

The Ireland team after qualifying for an Olympic qualifier Ireland are into the final stage of Olympic qualifiers later this year. Source: PressEye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

In a tight contest, Korea’s clinical edge proved the difference as they struck three times in the fourth and final quarter, leaving Ireland to deal with the bitter disappointment of a first defeat of the campaign.

Amid the deflation, on the pitch and emanating down from the stands, was the consolation that the main prize of an Olympic qualifying tie had already been assured, meaning this setback was by no means fatal.

Defeat does, however, give Ireland plenty to think about. They coasted through the pool with minimal fuss, comfortably swatting inferior opposition aside, before accounting for Czech Republic in the semi-final. The host nation scored 25 goals en route to the final.

But when faced with their first considerable test of the week, provided by a Korean side ranked 11 in the world, Gareth Grundie’s side couldn’t step up their level of performance, regularly giving the ball away and lacking the required tempo in possession.

When push came to shove, Korea took their chances in the fourth quarter and Ireland’s riposte came too late, with Nicci Daly pulling one back with a minute and 15 left on the clock.

One blip should not detract from an excellent week for Ireland, but heading towards August’s European Championship, there is huge room for improvement with new head coach Sean Dancer now taking the reins from stand-in Grundie.

“It is a bit bittersweet,” captain Katie Mullan said afterwards. “We put in some superb performances and scored a big number of goals which is a big positive for us. Today we just didn’t quite execute. We had chances and didn’t quite take them and then maybe a couple of lapses in concentration and teams like Korea will punish you for that.

“I’m really proud of the girls, we’ve come a long way and learnt a lot of lessons in the last few months. If we keep building the way we’re building, we’ll look good come the qualifiers.”

As well as having to settle for second place, Ireland missed out on the chance to boost their world ranking boosts by clinching the FIH Series title, although the Green Army remain in a strong position to earn a home qualifying tie in late October/early November.

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Ireland fans Ireland received huge support all week in Banbridge. Source: PressEye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

Overall, it was a hugely positive campaign for Ireland on home soil, with Banbridge staging an excellent tournament from start to finish and strong crowds turning out each day despite the inconsistent weather.

“The support is a huge thing for us and it was such a big thing in London,” Mullan continued. “The crowd made a huge difference and really got behind us. I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who travelled.

“The dynamic has changed and there has been shift, which has been really special for us. We want to build on that and we always said we wanted to improve things at grassroots level, and when you see the kids on the sideline, you can say that it’s happening.”

After an intense block, Ireland will enjoy a week off before preparations for the European Championships begin in earnest.

Australian Dancer, who has been with the squad in an observational role for the last month, will now take over and look to build on the progress made since last year’s World Cup final appearance.

“The staff did a really good job this week, they gave us the best possible chance to win and we take confidence from that too and now we’ve got to train under Sean now and it’s going to take us up a level again,” Mullan says.

“It’s a really exciting few months ahead. They say there is winning and there’s learning, and today is a massive learning for us. Now, we’re very much focused on training and making sure we’re in the best possible shape for Europeans.

“It’s another massive opportunity for us. It’s really important for us to start now with Sean and keep building on our skillsets and fitness. We’ll take a week and then hit the ground running again.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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