Ireland head to qualifier confident


They still travel to Milton Keynes for the Olympic Qualifier, which gets under way next Friday, as rank outsiders for a top five place and a trip to Sydney in September, but such has been the quality of Ireland's performances against the USA last month and Japan in Belfast over the weekend that coach Riet Kuper is confident enough to say "we now go there with a feeling it's possible".

Yesterday's 4-1 win over Japan, added to Saturday's 2-1 victory, will send the team in to their opening matches of the qualifier, against India on Saturday and the USA the following day, with morale higher than Rachel Kohler can ever remember it.

The Harlequins midfielder on Saturday became the third Irish woman to win 100 caps when Ireland had to come from behind to beat Japan, who are also Milton Keynes-bound. Kohler, Karen O'Brien and Mary Logue all came close to opening the scoring in the first half but were denied by Japanese goalkeeper Nami Miyazaki, who had an outstanding game.

Saori Miyazaki gave Japan the lead, against the run of play, five minutes in to the second half after Laura Brown lost control of a Caitriona O'Kelly free hit on the left. The ball fell to Miyazaki and she broke in to the circle before drilling it high to Tara Browne's right.

Ireland kept their cool, though, and upped the tempo until they were rewarded with two goals in as many minutes. The first came from O'Brien in the 50th minute when she deflected Brown's goalbound shot past Miyazaki. Sixty seconds later Kim Mills made it 2-1, scoring from a narrow angle on the left after Brown's corner strike had been saved at full stretch by Miyazaki.

Four goals from play capped an excellent Irish performance yesterday with the first a superb solo effort from Claire McMahon (in the ninth minute) and the second set up for Jill Orbinson in the 18th following fine work down the right by Logue and Jenny Burke.

McMahon scored again in the 58th minute and two minutes later the Pegasus winger created the fourth goal for Harlequins forward O'Brien, who fired high in to the roof of the net after Burke flicked McMahon's cross from the right in to her path. Japanese captain Sachimi Iwao scored a consolation goal 90 seconds from time, converting a quickly taken free hit that caught the Irish defence napping.

A successful end, then, to the Ireland squad's build-up to the qualifier. If they play as well against India and the USA next weekend, before taking on the favourites to top their pool, Germany and Spain, a place in the play-off for the fifth and final qualifying spot for Sydney against the other pool's third placed team might not, after all, be beyond them.

Ireland (v Japan, Saturday): Browne, Caulfield, Sixsmith, Boyles (nee Thompson), O'Kelly, Logue (capt), Brown, Kohler, McMahon, Burke, McVicker. Subs: Carey, Humphreys, O'Brien, Mills.

Ireland (v Japan, Sunday): Platt, Caulfield, Sixsmith, Boyles, Parkhill, Logue (capt), Brown, Kohler, McMahon, O'Brien, Mills. Subs: Browne, Burke, Carey, Humphreys, Orbinson.

International Matches (at Upper Malone, Belfast) - Saturday: Ireland 2 (O'Brien, Mills), Japan 1 (Miyazaki). Yesterday: Ireland 4 (McMahon 2, Orbinson, O'Brien), Japan 1 (Iwao).

Ulster Shield - Semi-Finals (at Upper Malone): Pegasus 3, Portadown 2; Queens 0, Victorians 3.