Irish hockey on top of the World League

by Stephen Findlater
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ON A weekend of high Irish sporting achievement, the Irish women’s hockey team went in slightly under the radar but took a huge step toward Olympic qualification last weekend in Belfield, winning the World League Round 2.

The victory sees the side advance to Round 3 of the competition which acts as the qualifying process for Rio in 2016 with Ireland among 20 remaining teams battling for 12 spots later this summer at a tournament in Valencia.

Two years ago, during the World Cup qualifiers, Ireland bowed out in low key fashion at this stage. This time around, Darren Smith’s charges showed how far they have developed with some breathtaking performances over the course of six games in nine days, crucially beating Belarus 7-0 in last Saturday’s semi-final.

Captain Megan Frazer, named player of the tournament, said of the win: “It’s always nice to come out like that in a high pressure game, a great performance. We had spoken about picking up the speed and intensity throughout the tournament and hit the nail on the head.”

The conviction of the performance is a far cry from 2013 when Ireland struggled against the same opposition, showing how far the side have come since then. Frazer added that her side were confident in their own methods.

“We obviously have some history with them but we did this in a really professional manner. You can carry baggage against teams like that but we nipped that in the bud, gave them nothing and got a clean sheet. It was a great performance.

“We all knew it was a high pressure game and have played in them before. It’s a testament to the girls who kept their composure and kept it simple. Our passing rate, speed of play and our basics were on point. It’s something we are building up to.”

Frazer added that the crowd was “phenomenal” on days when there were plenty of other sporting options on the table.

“Every time we come out, the stands are full even when the Six Nations rugby match was on. It is an honour to perform when everyone supports us like that and we really appreciate it.”

The Belarus result – against a team they had lost to back in 2013 – ensured Ireland advanced to Round 3 along with fellow finalists Canada. It rendered the final on Sunday something of a lap of honour, albeit one played out in front of a giant crowd that included the President Michael D Higgins.

In a tense final, UCD’s Nikki Evans gave Ireland the lead 38 seconds into the second half only for Canada’s Holly Stewart to level seven minutes later in the tie.

That tied the game at 1-1, ultimately leading to a penalty shoot-out. Coach Smith swapped in Ayeisha McFerran between the posts and she kept out two Canadian efforts before Hermes star Aine Connery coolly rolled home the winner.

Former Old Alex player Shirley McCay spoke of the sense of trying to make history and qualify Ireland for a first ever Olympic Games.

“The level of our general play and our basics has improved hugely and I think we are very clear in our jobs which allows us to play with freedom and flow,” she said.

“It’s really enjoyable to play this way and we know each other’s game so well, making it easy to play off each other and maybe build something special.”

Coach Smith, meanwhile, said it was a superb end to a great week for the Irish team.

“Fantastic crowd, the President of Ireland, friends and family all here and a chance to win a tournament. The girls were really excited for the final and, in the end, it was good spectacle. Canada did a good job but we got the result in the end.

“World League 2, from my perspective, was a great advertisement for hockey and a lot of fun.”

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