Green Army shake off shackles to beat France in opening World Cup qualifier

** Niamh Carey celebrates her debut goal. Picture: Frank Uijlenbroek/World Sport Pics

Women’s FIH World Cup qualifier
Ireland 4 (R Upton, H McLoughlin, Z Malseed, N Carey) France 1 (G van Bolhuis)

Ireland moved a step closer to World Cup qualification as they overcame a sticky first half to eventually run riot against France in Pisa, setting up a Saturday date with Belarus in the semi-finals.

An even and relatively chanceless first half was contrasted by a big second half in which corner goals from Róisín Upton and Hannah McLoughlin settled the nerves before a flurry of late goals saw Zara Malseed and debutante Niamh Carey also on the mark.

They will now go on to meet Belarus in Saturday’s semi-final (11am, Irish time) following their hugely impressive 7-1 win over Russia in the tournament’s opening game. Ireland need to win that one and then also succeed in Sunday’s final to assure passage to next summer’s main event.

Reflecting on the win, Upton said it was crucial to follow the pre-match plan despite the first half frustrations and it paid dividends.

“It’s something we talked about, sticking to the process no matter how long the game went on at 0-0, or even if we concede,” the Limerick woman said afterwards.

“We were really pleased we stuck to the plan and broke through. We knew we needed to win corners; the execution in the first half wasn’t so good so we had to pick it up and nail it. Getting on the scoresheet early in the second half settled everyone.”

Early on, the Green Army enjoyed a bright start, winning a couple of penalty corners to no avail while Anna O’Flanagan drew an excellent stop from Mathilde Petriaux who impressed for the world number 27 side.

France, though, also showed intent with Emma Ponthieu at the heart of things, keeping Ayeisha McFerran on her toes as the first half ended blank.

After the break, Sean Dancer’s side hit full throttle with Sarah Hawkshaw winning the corner which led to the deadlock being broken, a rocket of a penalty corner in the 32nd minute.

McFerran was forced to make a stunning low glove save from Marie Simon’s corner chance as the French upped their intensity having gone behind but Ireland finished out the third quarter better.

And they got an extra buffer from a corner; Upton’s first-up shot was blocked but McLoughlin picked up the ball and unleashed a brilliant backhand shot which took a slight touch in off a defender.

Malseed got in on the act with another powerful strike on her reverse for 3-0 as goals suddenly rained in thick and fast. Guusje van Bolhuis got one back a minute later from a French set piece but respite was brief for her side as Niamh Carey swooped to tip in a rebound from Ellen Curran’s initial shot for 4-1.

And Upton said it was not surprising to see the UCD player get in on the act.

“It’s no different to what we see every day in training! Her first cap has been a long time coming but she scores goals like that constantly, even in the uncapped games and it is great to have her here.”

For Carey, herself, it was a super start to her international career, a marked difference from her twin Michelle’s first cap during June’s European Championships.

“Knowing it was a tournament game, there is that added pressure of it being ‘must-win’. It was nice, though, facing a lower-ranked team, unlike [her twin] Michelle’s first cap against Holland [in June], knowing we would have more of the ball and I would get some touches than she would have had!”

Next up, Ireland (12th in the world) will meet Belarus (21st) with a place in Sunday’s final on offer. The Green Army must win both to qualify for the World Cup.

Ireland: A McFerran, M Carey, R Upton, K Mullan, L Tice, N Carroll, H McLoughlin, C Watkins, S Hawkshaw, A O’Flanagan, N Carey
Subs: E Getty, Z Malseed, S Torrans, D Duke, E Curran, S McAuley, L Murphy

France: M Petriaux, E Ponthieu, J Brachet, M Simon, A Lesgourgues, G van Bolhuis, E Verzura, I Lardeur, A Garot, D Gaspari, T-M Schubert
Subs: M Lahlah, Y Lhopital, G Verrier, E van der Zanden, N Roque, L Ehrmann

Umpires: Y Makar (CRO), L Baljon (NED)