End of Olympic dream for Ireland
Ireland fall short in their quest to make London Games
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.
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.