Ireland deliver crucial opening win in Nations Cup

Goals from Jeremy Duncan and Shane O’Donoghue handed Mark Tumilty’s Ireland an important win in their opening match of the FIH Men’s Hockey Nations Cup against France this morning.

After a rain shower during the warm-up in Potchefstroom, France started the game more brightly and looked more likely to score as they won a couple of early penalty corners. The dangerous Victor Charlet is always a goal threat but Ireland’s corner defence and goalkeeper David Fitzgerald in particular were able to keep him quiet.

While France looked dangerous from the set piece, Ireland showed glimpses of what they could do from open play and it was a field goal that came from a turnover in the centre of the pitch in the 22nd minute that put Ireland in front. Player of the match John McKee won the ball and drifted forward, beating several opponents before sliding a perfect pass into the path of the onrushing Jeremy Duncan who dived and lifted the ball over the goalkeeper to open the scoring.

Ireland didn’t retain the lead for long, though, as France piled on the pressure, launching a number of attacks before scoring from their fourth penalty corner of the match. Ireland were down to three outfield defenders as they broke the line for France’s third corner. France’s Victor Charlet made use of the extra space as he sent a flick like a tracer bullet between the right post and post player to see France’s level.

Benjamin Walker thought he had done enough to put Ireland back in front soon after when he was taken down in front of the goal and was awarded a penalty stroke, but Thieffry Arthur saved Shane O’Donoghue’s effort to keep the scores tied.

O’Donoghue made up for that miss in the third quarter. France had previously squandered another couple of corners before Ireland won a corner of their own and O’Donoghue’s powerful drag went under Arthur’s foot as the goalkeeper went from hero to villain for France.

A tense final quarter was end to end, with both sides throwing punches and France piling forward to try to retrieve a point from the game but it ended with Ireland in front on two goals to one.

Coach Tumilty was effusive in his compliments for his team. “I’m delighted with the win,” he smiled. “This group has certainly had a few tough days in the past and they’ve shown a real bit of character today to dig out that result. I’m very pleased with how they managed the game and how they executed the game plan which is a huge step forward for us.

“So now our focus turns towards the Pakistan game and seeing can we build towards achieving that semi-final berth. It won’t be an easy game but we just need to produce a performance similar to what we produced today and that’s the challenge going into tomorrow.”

Player of the match McKee knows there is still plenty to do if Ireland are to progress. “It’s a massive win, we were very happy. France are a very good team so it’s a good start for us but it’s only game one, so we’re focusing on the rest of the tournament now.”

Goal scorer Jeremy Duncan spoke after the game about how he put Ireland in front. “How did I score? I sprinted as fast as I could and tucked it away into the corner,” he laughed. “It was a nice team goal and a good quick counterattack; a nice way to start the game and start the tournament. We had to dig deep and defend the goal as best we could, we had to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and absolutely just fight for every single ball and we did that. We showed a fighting spirit.”

Shane O’Donoghue says that Pakistan are somewhat of an unknown quantity but that Ireland have done their preparation. “We last played them in 2015; they have a very different style of play which is something we’re not really used to as a team,” he said. “It’s a very young team we have away here but we have done our homework already, we’re going to debrief today’s game, take away some learnings and tweak a few things and make sure we’re ready for Pakistan,” he added.

Ireland are back in action again tomorrow at 9 am when they will face Pakistan in their second group fixture.