Ireland will face the Czech Republic in Saturday’s FIH Hockey series semi-final at Havelock Park, needing a win to guarantee a place in the final stage of the qualification process for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The Czechs booked their place in the last four when they defeated Scotland 4-3 on penalties after a 0-0 draw with Malaysia – 3-2 winners over France – taking on Korea in the other semi.
Ireland will start favourites to achieve their objective with some comfort, having already beaten the eastern Europeans 8-1 in the group stages. However, tomorrow’s game could also be decided by a penalty shootout, if the scores are level after the regulation 60 minutes.
Although the hosts would obviously like to get the job done without recourse to the ice hockey style one-on-ones, Gary Longwell believes Ireland should have few problems in the unlikely event that the game goes to the wire.
Helped by the former Ulster and Ireland rugby star’s input behind the scenes in his role as a performance coach with SINI, shootouts no longer hold any fears for the Irish girls who missed out on the Rio Olympics after the heartache of losing a sudden death decider against China in Spain in 2015.
Last August in London, they went on to win both their quarter and semi-final World Cup matches against India and Spain respectively by the same method, thus exorcising the ghosts of Valencia.
Longwell said: “It’s fantastic the way they turned things around in London and it was so encouraging that players were actually volunteering to take penalties after the bitter disappointment of the past.”
“I am there to lend any help that I can whether it be one-on-one with the players or as a group and they are a great bunch to work with.”
Ireland, though, will be expected to beat the Czechs in 60 minutes, having had little difficulty topping their pool with a clean sweep of victories having also beaten Malaysia (2-1), and Singapore (11-0). They have had the upper hand against the world number 19 side in recent years, having also beaten them 6-0 in the European second-tier final in Prague in 2015 and 3-1 at the last European Championship in Amsterdam in 2017.
Interim head coach Gareth Grundie wisely hasn’t given too much away so far with either his team selections or penalty corner routines, keeping Ireland’s opponents guessing. No doubt he has one or two set-piece variations up his sleeve and only he and the players will know what formation he will pick for tomorrow’s game against the Czechs.
For example, defender Shirley McCay has played the last two games in a more advanced role while Zoe Wilson has been playing in midfield and has scored two of Ireland’s goals so far in the tournament.
The Belfast Harlequins player says she doesn’t mind where she lines out, despite having played at the back for the bulk of her international career.
Wilson said: “Gareth has been doing a lot of switching around and I think it’s good to have versatility within the group.”
“I don’t mind where I’m picked to play and I am used to being in midfield with my club and the most important thing is that we keep on winning.
“We have been happy with the way we’ve been playing so far and we have achieved our first target by winning our pool. Now our next task is to win the semi-final and, if we can do that, we will be focussed on going all the way in this tournament and ultimately qualifying for the Olympics which remains the goal.”
Crossover matches: Malaysia 3 France 2; Scotland 0 Czech Republic 0 (Czech Republic win shootout 4-3)
7th/8th place play-off: Singapore v Ukraine (11am)
Semi-finals: Ireland v Czech Republic (1.15pm); Korea v Malaysia (3.30pm).