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Ryan Byrne/INPHO Republic of Ireland women's national team manager.
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'Real blow' as injured midfield duo ruled out of Ireland's 'very tough' play-off
Ireland will be without Megan Connolly and Ruesha Littlejohn for next month’s showdown against Scotland or Austria.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND women’s national team manager Vera Pauw must plan for a “very tough” World Cup play-off showdown without injured midfield duo Megan Connolly and Ruesha Littlejohn.

Ireland will face Scotland or Austria away in the one-off play-off on 11 October. The Girls In Green secured a first-round bye and seeded place, and today’s draw confirmed they will be pitted against the winners of the battle of those higher-ranked sides in a straight shoot-out.

Brighton star Connolly (rib) and Littlejohn of Aston Villa (foot) were both ruled out of Ireland’s final Group A win in Slovakia after sustaining setbacks against Finland last week. 

Pauw has lamented the “real blow,” but is hopeful Liverpool captain Niamh Fahey can return. The centurion missed the recent double-header, with Connolly dropping deeper to central defence against the Finns in her absence.

“It’s a very tough draw,” the manager told reporters on a Zoom call this afternoon, as her side’s bid to a reach a first-ever major tournament hits new heights.

“Both Scotland and Austria are really good teams. Austria impressed me hugely at the Euros. I did one of their games for RTÉ, they are well organised, physically strong, a few extremely good, talented players, a strong striker [Nicole Billa], a solid defence, so if they get through it will be very, very difficult — the same as Scotland. We all know how much experience they have, how dynamic they play, with players like Kim Little. We have huge respect for them.

“It could have been better, but we have to deal with it, we have to go for it. And we will. We will be ready on 11 October.”

With the first-round scheduled for five days earlier on the 6th, Ireland will not play an international friendly but a game against U16/17 boys that evening.

Two scouts, Conor Woods and Danny O’Leary, will attend the Scotland-Austria game at Hampden Park to analyse the opposition. 

megan-connolly Tom Maher / INPHO Megan Connolly will be a big blow. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Asked which of the sides would be more preferable, Pauw, previously Scotland manager in the early noughties, responded: “They’re both, in their own way, very, very good. They’re both more experienced. They both know how to win games. The only thing is that if we play Scotland I just heard that we would play at Hampden Park and my office has been there for four years so that would be special.

“Austria’s strength is their organisation. They’re very solid in their team set-up, both defending and in attack. There are not any weak points. And Scotland is more dynamic, faster in their play, with more variety in their play than Austria, but have extremely good players that can break down a defensive line. There are two different styles but equally good.”

A win for Ireland would mean direct qualification for next summer’s World Cup, or a ticket to February’s inter-confederation play-offs in New Zealand. The two second-round winners with the highest ranking — based on results in the qualifying group stage and round two play-offs — will qualify automatically, while the other team contests the last-gasp 10-team tournament.

Currently behind Switzerland and Iceland in the rankings, an Irish win would likely send them down the route, but defeats for the other pair would make their path easier.

“Switzerland have the best draw, I think, with the winner of Bosnia/Wales as their opponent but it’s good the other way around, Iceland have the toughest draw. If they lose points and we are somehow able to win, it’s straight through to the World Cup which would be fantastic.

“I’m very proud of what we have achieved but I also know where we stand and I’m very realistic. The only thing I can say again is that we will do everything we can to be absolutely ready at that moment and to get the best play that we have ever played.

“It is in our own hands to win that second-round game, and that will be very tough. The key thing is that we have one game, a final, and it comes down to that.”

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ireland-celebrate-after-the-game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ireland celebrating their recent win in Slovakia. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Doing it on the road could be tough, but Pauw won’t get too caught up on that. Playing away as a seeded team is unfair, she says, but she’d prefer not to dwell on it.

“I’ve given my opinion already about the play-off system. Let’s leave it at that, I think it doesn’t make sense.”

“We don’t fear away games, I’ll say it like that,” the Dutch native added. “We are confident because we play tasks, and that is no difference home or away. Of course we’ll miss the drive of the crowd and everything they put in to help us over the difficult times. Again, we have to deal with it, we have to go out and be our very, very best on that day.

“It would be magic if Irish fans could travel because we do need that.”

Pauw is hopeful of having the services of Heather Payne, college commitments having ruled the Florida State University star out before – “I don’t think that any Uni would hold her back from a game like that. But we all know with the problems with the colleges. The college system is not related to Fifa so the Fifa windows, it doesn’t oblige the college to release the player. I hope the University will understand that this is a game of her life, and that they will not block her from joining Ireland at any stage” — and her U19 representatives despite a separate potential clash.

She’s also optimistic for Fahey’s involvement, but not that of Connolly and Littlejohn.

“We hope Niamh Fahey is fit but Ruesha and Megan are both out already. Due to the strategy that we’ve chosen, we can fill those gaps, but we should not underestimate their qualities, of course. They have both been very crucial the whole campaign in building and carrying this team. It’s a real blow but we have to do without them.”

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