End of Olympic dream for Ire­land

Ire­land fall short in their quest to make London Games

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - MARY HAN­NI­GAN Re­ports from Kon­tich, Bel­gium

THERE’S PROB­A­BLY only so much heartache a sport can take. In the space of a week Ir­ish hockey has seen both its men’s and women’s teams reach the fi­nals of their Olympic qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ments, putting them 70 min­utes away from earn­ing a place in this sum­mer’s London Games. And both fell at the final hur­dle.

While the men, though, had their hopes ag­o­nis­ingly ended by a Korean win­ner two sec­onds from time the Sun­day be­fore last, the women’s fate was all but sealed be­fore half-time yes­ter­day in their final against Bel­gium, hav­ing con­ceded three goals in seven first-half min­utes. They went on to lose 4-1.

In front of a sold-out crowd of 2,500 at the Beer­schot club on the out­skirts of An­twerp, bask­ing in un­sea­son­ably balmy weather, the hosts, like Ire­land aim­ing to qual­ify for the Olympic Games for the first time, se­cured their pas­sage to London by com­pre­hen­sively out­play­ing their op­po­nents, just as they had done at last sum­mer’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships when they won 3-0. When the final hooter blew, the Ir­ish were in­con­solable, the Bel­gians eu­phoric, the tears flow­ing in equal mea­sure. More than a few of the Ir­ish squad re­moved their sil­ver medals not long af­ter they had been pre­sented to them. “We might as well have come last,” ad­mit­ted Au­drey O’flynn.

The Cork woman pulled a goal back for Ire­land in the 56th minute, her eighth in five matches, mak­ing her the tour­na­ment’s top scorer, but by then the team were 3-0 down, and within a minute of scor­ing they con­ceded an­other. And that was that.

“The girls said af­ter it was like liv­ing a nightmare,” said O’flynn. “The match just flew by. They were just win­ning ev­ery 50-50 ball, I don’t know, we just never got in to it, never got go­ing. Ah, it’s just so dis­ap­point­ing. We said be­fore the match that we’ve put in two years of hard work for this but we have to show that on the pitch – and we didn’t show it to­day. We just didn’t per­form in any area of the pitch,” she added.

Coach Gene Muller was no less down af­ter the game, but, like O’flynn, ac­knowl­edged the su­pe­rior side were on the way to London.

“They were the bet­ter team, they were tech­ni­cally bet­ter, they scored at mo­ments of as­cen­dancy, we just couldn’t get a foothold in the game. We had mo­ments, but it wasn’t enough. In the end you just haem­or­rhage en­ergy, it’s very dif­fi­cult to turn it around. There were one or two con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sions that went against us, the stroke was a big mo­ment – no one would have com­plained if that was given as a penalty corner, there was sur­prise ev­ery­where – and their last goal came off a player’s body. But they still de­served to win, they have been the best team at this event, and de­serve to go to London. I con­grat­u­late them.”

Muller, a na­tive of Kwazulu-natal in South Africa and the team’s first full-time coach, will leave any de­ci­sions about his own fu­ture “un­til an­other day”, but praised his play­ers for their com­mit­ment of the past two years to the Ir­ish Hockey As­so­ci­a­tion’s Cen­tral Prepa­ra­tion Pro­gramme which was de­signed to give them the best prepa­ra­tion pos­si­ble for their Olympic qual­i­fy­ing ef­forts.

“My word, the play­ers have been un­be­liev­able, the amount they have put into this pro­gramme has been ex­cep­tional – I’m re­ally ap­pre­cia­tive and re­spect­ful of their ef­forts,” he said. “As a group of peo­ple they de­cided they wanted to chase some­thing, it’s so com­mend­able, they put ev­ery­thing they had in to it. It’s just a pity they didn’t get what they came for. But we can have no re­grets, we gave it ev­ery­thing.”

Time to re­flect, then, for Muller and his play­ers. Some will re­tire, some will try to play on, if their work­ing lives per­mit. But for now, Rio 2016 seems a life­time away.

in Kon­tich, An­twerp IR­ISH WOMEN’S hockey has suf­fered its fair share of dis­ap­point­ments over the years in the pur­suit of its ul­ti­mate am­bi­tion, qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the Olympic Games.

Ex­tra-time golden goal win­ners by China and the United States in 2000 and 2004 ended hopes of reach­ing Syd­ney and Athens, a loss to Italy four years ago scup­per­ing dreams of qual­i­fy­ing for Bei­jing.

Yes­ter­day’s de­feat to Bel­gium, though, will hurt more than most, the man­ner of it more again. Olympic qual­i­fi­ca­tion never, per­haps, seemed more achiev­able, op­ti­mism high af­ter a pool cam­paign that saw com­fort­able vic­to­ries over France, Rus­sia and Mex­ico, and a gritty suc­cess over top seeds Spain. But in the end, the hosts, ranked two places be­low Ire­land, proved much too strong for Gene Muller’s team and it is they who take their place in the 12-na­tion line-up at this sum­mer’s Games. A quick-fire first-half hat­trick by Sofie Gierts, be­tween the 12th and 19th min­utes, all but ended the game as a con­test, and while Ire­land never gave up, pulling a goal back mid­way through the sec­ond pe­riod, they never truly looked like threat­en­ing Bel­gium’s ad­van­tage.

A year ago the Bel­gians, not long ago re­garded as also-rans in in­ter­na­tional hockey, beat Ire­land 3-0 at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships, the play­ers con­ced­ing they froze on the day and never re­ally got go­ing. It was a sim­i­lar tale yes- ter­day, Ire­land’s nerves show­ing from the start, un­der- and over­hit passes pounced on by a Bel­gian side with seem­ingly bound­less en­ergy.

The hosts forced a penalty corner as early as the third minute, and not long af­ter cap­tain Char­lotte De Vos came close to turn­ing in Anouik Raes’ fiercely struck cross from the left. The pres­sure was in­tense, only re­lieved by a surging Emma Smyth run and cross that flashed across the face of goal, no Ir­ish stick there to greet it.

And then the open­ing goal came, from noth­ing, Gierts’ snap shot from the top of the cir­cle placed so per­fectly, into the bot­tom left corner of the goal, Emma Gray was left help­less.

Five min­utes later Gierts con­verted a penalty stroke to make it 2-0, its award, for a stick tackle, seem­ing harsh, even the Bel­gians look­ing pleas­antly sur­prised by the decision. Gierts com­pleted her hat­trick two min­utes later, forc­ing home a well-worked corner at the left post.

Ire­land, to their credit, fought gamely to get a goal back be­fore the break, but failed to con­vert any of the three short cor­ners they earned, the play­ers look­ing ut­terly de­jected at half-time.

Bel­gium’s in­dis­ci­pline in the sec­ond half might have given Ire­land an open­ing to get back in the game, for one minute they were even down to nine play­ers when two yel­low cards over­lapped, but not even Au­drey O’flynn’s eighth goal of the tour­na­ment from a penalty corner could her­ald a re­vival, Bel­gium restor­ing their three-goal ad­van­tage within 60 sec­onds through Erica Coppey.

The de­ci­sions didn’t al­ways go Ire­land’s way, not least with the stroke, but as O’flynn con­ceded af­ter, “they scored four goals, so you re­ally can’t com­plain.” IRE­LAND: E Gray, N Sym­mons, S Mccarthy, C Sar­gent, E Smyth, L Colvin, E Clarke, L Ja­cob, A Speers, A Con­nery, A O’flynn. Subs: M Har­vey, S Mc­cay, N Daly, N Evans, M Crow­ley. BEL­GIUM: N Khouzam, A Raes, L Dan­haive, E Coppey, G Val­cke, L Cave­naile, C de Vos (capt), B Ne­len, J Boon, S Gierts, S de Groof. Subs: A Gerniers, L van Lindt, E Sinia, A S van Rege­mor­tel, H Delmee. Um­pires: M Jou­bert (South Africa) and A Has­sick (USA). Olympic Qual­i­fier (at Beer­schot, Bel­gium): Play-offs – Fifth: France 5 Mex­ico 1. Third: Spain 5 Rus­sia 1. Final: Bel­gium 4 (S Gierts 3, E Coppey), Ire­land 1 ( A O’flynn). Final plac­ings: 1 Bel­gium, 2 Ire­land, 3 Spain, 4 Rus­sia, 5 France, 6 Mex­ico.

Pho­to­graph: Geert Van­den Wi­jn­gaert/ap

Bel­gium’s Sofie Gierts (left) chal­lenges Ire­land’s Miriam Crow­ley dur­ing the final of the FIH Women’s Olympic Hockey Qual­i­fier at the Royal Beer­schot club in Kon­tich, Bel­gium, yes­ter­day.

Ire­land’s Au­drey O’flynn who was tour­na­ment’s top scorer.

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