Heartbreak for Ireland as they falter at final hurdle

It took a final quarter penalty stroke to separate Ireland and South Africa in a pulsating FIH Hockey Nations Cup final that didn’t go Ireland’s way in Potchefstroom this afternoon. Ireland had almost double the shots on goal that South Africa did, but it was the cutting edge that the Irish were missing while the hosts were clinical in this high-stakes match.

Ireland never got in front in an enthralling encounter, although they managed to get back level from a 3-1 deficit in the third quarter to ensure a breathless last quarter. Mark Tumilty’s men spent much of the match chasing the game, but with 10 seconds to go in the third quarter, John McKee scored Ireland’s third to draw things level and give his team a chance to win this historic, inaugural tournament.

An early field goal from South Africa’s skipper knocked the stuffing out of the boys in green when they went behind in the fourth minute. Dayaan Cassiem, who finished the day as player of the match and player of the tournament, found space on the right of the Irish circle, lifted the ball over his defender’s stick and roofed a bouncing ball to give his side an early lead.

Ireland then dominated play with a passing game, but South Africa showed more discipline today than in the encounter between these teams in the group stages. Ireland’s best chance of the first quarter came in the final minute when Jeremy Duncan received with his back to goal, spun and flicked in one movement and Ben Walker almost snuck his touch under the keeper.
Ireland continued their passing game in the second period, and it was a passing move that saw them win their first corner which Shane O’Donoghue duly scored. The defender’s sublime drag flick was too quick for Hendrik Kriek in the South Arica goal as he was simply beaten for pace.

It was a final for the ages with end-to-end hockey, both teams showing prowess with their overhead delivery and one-on-one skills. Cassiem was in the mood and he created another moment of brilliance when he received on the left of Ireland’s circle, juggled past a handful of defenders and committed David Fitzgerald in goals before, incredibly, hitting fresh air and squandering a gilt-edged chance. Cassiem made up for his earlier mistake, though, again finding a yard of space, backing into the circle and firing a bullet into the right corner on his reverse to give his team the lead again.

South Africa will be forgiven for thinking they had earned themselves some breathing space, then, when in the first minute of the second half, Tevin Kok produced the play of the game after incredible skill from Keenan Horne. Horne had controlled a short overhead just outside the Ireland circle before juggling past a couple of defenders. Kok then dinked over his defender’s stick before a double lift just made it over Fitzgerald’s shoulder to make it three goals to one in South Africa’s favour.

Credit must go to Tumilty’s charges, though. They didn’t panic, continuing to put pressure on the hosts, and when John McKee was denied from close range, he did well to see what most did not – a South Africa back-stick in the circle. He opted to use Ireland’s referral and the penalty corner was duly given. O’Donoghue gave Ireland hope when he fired another rocket into the top right corner, this time almost taking the glove of Kriek with it into the goal.

The score might have been much higher as each side seemed to score the more difficult goals, and miss the more clear-cut chances, but it was a moment of luck that saw Ireland level things up. Jeremy Duncan received in midfield and found McKee who drifted into the circle and swept what was probably a pass for an Ireland deflection. Instead, he found the stick of a South African defender and the resulting deflection wrong-footed the keeper to make it three apiece going into the final quarter.

But in the end, it was an Irish mistake that led to the winner for South Africa with 10 minutes to go. South Africa won the ball in the midfield and when Cassiem was through on goal, a foul from behind gave the umpire no choice but to award a penalty stroke. Mustaphaa Cassiem, Dayaan’s brother, sent Fitzgerald the wrong way and slotted into the right corner.

As the clock ran down, Ireland played with patience, but South Africa managed the game well, thwarting everything Ireland threw at them. The hosts were good value for their first victory over Ireland and their first place in the FIH Hockey Nations Cup.

Ireland captain Sean Murray was understandably distraught after the match. “Just gutted, to be honest, really gutted. Credit to South Africa, they were good today; they took their chances. We put a lot of pressure on, had some good chances as well but in the end, it just comes down to little details and it’s just bitterly disappointing.”

Even after a devastating loss, Murray spoke of his team’s bright future. “We have a young group coming together; we’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months, especially,” he said. “We have a lot more to give, I think. We just need to get through the next few months and regroup, get back together, and push on,” he finished.

Coach Mark Tumilty feels his team had the winning of the match. “We had enough chances to get something out of that game but that’s sometimes the way that it goes at this level,” he admitted. “We got punished by a very clinical South Africa side. Overall, it was an excellent tournament and something for the Senior Men to build on.”

Tumilty was philosophical after a frustrating day: “It’s a disappointing result, and the opportunity to play in the FIH Pro League would have been fantastic, not just for the senior men’s team, but for hockey in Ireland. However, I think this group of players can look back on this week with great pride. We certainly have made huge progress and it’s now an opportunity to kick on in 2023 and beyond.”

Ireland’s senior women are in action next when they look to go one better than their male counterparts in the Women’s FIH Hockey Nations Cup. That tournament begins on December 11th.