Unbeaten Ireland march on to Nations Cup semi-final

Player of the match Shane O’Donoghue made it three goals in three games as his penalty corner drag flick separated Ireland and South Africa in their final group game in Potchefstroom, South Africa today. The set-piece goal was enough to ensure Ireland go into the semi-finals of the Nations Cup on Saturday in top spot in Pool A.

Mark Tumilty’s charges showed composure both on the ball and in defence, and in the end it was that composure that proved the difference between the two sides that had gone into this match unbeaten.

South Africa will look back at this clash and consider it an opportunity missed. Had they taken their chances and turned Ireland over, it would have been their first win against the boys in green. The host nation’s ill-discipline saw them reduced to 10 players four times during the match with three green cards and a yellow as compared with Ireland’s single green card.

Ireland began the game well, winning two penalty corners in the first quarter – the second of which they scored through veteran O’Donoghue. It was the striker-turned-defender’s third goal of the competition and 110th of his 203-game career. Ireland continued to dictate the pace in the opening 15 minutes and remained in front going into the break.

South Africa won their first corner early in the second quarter but Ireland dealt with it well, and it was Ireland who dominated those initial stages of the second period with sustained pressure on their opposition’s defence. But the host nation will be satisfied with how they dealt with the testing of their defence; they then had their best period of the game as Ireland were forced to defend South Africa’s second corner as well as bright passages from open play.

Ill discipline was the order of the day for South Africa as they squandered good attacking opportunities, and made it easy for Ireland when coming out of defence with unforced errors.

The third quarter featured plenty of entertaining individual skill, but as both teams tired, they tended to overrun the ball, losing it after taking on one too many defenders. The game became more physical, with injuries to South Africa’s Jethro Eustace and Ireland’s John McKee. Both umpires used their video referrals, as did both teams as Ireland had a yellow card overturned, and South Africa a goal disallowed in an action-packed second half.

The closing stages lacked the quality of the first half but Mark Tumilty was happy with how his team absorbed pressure in the final quarter by staying patient in defence and waiting for their opposition to make a mistake as South Africa pushed for an equaliser. “It was a tough game and it was good to get out the other side of it with three points,” said the Ireland coach.“I thought we created enough chances today, possibly, to extend our lead to make it more comfortable but it was pleasing that we defended well in the second half.”

O’Donoghue acknowledged that it was a scrappy match. “Both teams are very competitive, wanting to win, and it came down to fine details and I think we weathered their purple patch well. It was an absolute dog fight, no question about it, and we came out on top so we’re happy to progress to the semi-final now,” he said.

“These tournaments are all about momentum and getting better game on game; I think we have. We’ve made improvements, there are definitely areas still to improve and there are definitely some competitive teams in the crossover games,” O’Donoghue added.

Speaking after the game, defender Lee Cole said Ireland are used to close matches. “It’s been a very tough three games,” he admitted. “All of our games have gone down to the wire which is kind of the Irish way, especially today when we went up early and then defended for a lot of the rest of the game.”

Looking ahead to their semi-final, Cole says it will be another tight match. “We’ve had a couple of good battles against Malaysia over the years. They look pretty hot, especially in their last 15 minutes against Japan today – they seemed to really turn it on – so they’ll be another tough test.”

Ireland face Malaysia in the first of the two semi-finals at 11.30 am on Saturday, with the winner playing in the final on Sunday at 1.15 pm.