Anna O’Flanagan double secures another World Cup adventure for Ireland

Sean Dancer’s side make it three major tournaments in a row after win over Wales

Ireland 2 Wales 1

There was a time when qualifying for major tournaments proved to be something of a struggle for the Irish women’s hockey team, but they would now appear to have got the hang of it. Sunday’s 2-1 win over Wales in Pisa, courtesy of an Anna O’Flanagan double, has earned them a place in the 2022 World Cup, to add to their appearances in the 2018 finals and this summer’s Olympic Games. A three-in-a-row.

And this triumph sees them qualify for successive World Cups for the first time in the tournament’s 48-year history, their wins over France, Belarus and the Welsh sealing their slot in next July’s finals, which will be co-hosted by Spain and the Netherlands.

“What just happened here is a huge moment for the legacy of this team, continuing to build on the success we have already had,” said captain Katie Mullan. “We knew it would be a defining moment. It wasn’t pretty, but it shows the character within our group to come away from the game with a win from such a tough battle.

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“This group needs to be going to major tournament after major tournament. This was the first roadblock after 2018 and this is a massive achievement. For our sport to continue to grow the way it has, and to continue to inspire the next generation, it was so important for us.”

Ireland went into the game as firm favourites, their opponents 12 places below them in the world rankings, but the Welsh had already upset the odds en route to the final by beating Italy and Scotland, and included in their ranks two players who won Olympic bronze with Britain in Tokyo, Sarah Jones and Leah Wilkinson.

And after going behind to a O'Flanagan goal, when she deflected Sarah Torrans's pass through the legs of Welsh goalkeeper Rose Thomas in the eighth minute, Wales put it up to Ireland.

They equalised seconds from the end of the first quarter, from their first penalty corner of the game, a slickly executed routine finding Izzie Howell on the right post from where she prodded the ball home.

And after a scrappy second quarter, with no clearcut chances for either side, Wales were on top in the third, only Lena Tice’s clearance off the line from the first of three penalty corners in quick succession denying them the lead.

It was a worrying spell for Ireland, the exceptional pace of the Carey twins, Michelle and Niamh, often all that was providing them with any relief, but they upped their game in the final quarter, showing all the experience they have garnered in recent years.

It was Ards' Zara Malseed who created the winner for O'Flanagan when, with 11 minutes to go, she dispossessed a Welsh defender on the right, charged forward, slipped the ball into O'Flanagan's path, Ireland's all-time leading scorer smashing it home from the narrowest of angles.

In a tense and at times physical close to the game, during which four players were sin-binned, two from either side, Ireland defended with no little composure in the face of desperate Welsh efforts to find an equaliser, Róisín Upton and Tice impressing in particular with their ball-keeping skills as they ran down the clock.

The relief at the final hooter was palpable, it had been the toughest of contests, but there was unbridled joy too.

It's a fine achievement by Sean Dancer's side which, while retaining a core of vastly experienced players, lost a quartet with over 800 caps between them since Tokyo, with Shirley McCay, Hannah Matthews, Nicci Daly and Lizzie Holden all retiring. They went in to this tournament carrying the burden of the favourite's tag, but while tested by Belarus and the Welsh, they held their nerve.

It proved to a memorable tournament for the 22-year-old Carey twins who both had a significant impact in all three games, Niamh marking her debut with a goal against France, following that up with the winner against Belarus.

The performances of the former Dublin minor Gaelic footballers and Coláiste Íosagáin old girls would, no doubt, have impressed their uncle Larry McCarthy, although as GAA president he might have been a touch too occupied over the weekend to be paying much attention to the hockey.

IRELAND: A McFerran, E Getty, R Upton, K Mullan, L Tice, N Carroll, C Watkins, S Hawkshaw, A O'Flanagan, N Carey, S McAuley.

Subs: E Murphy, Z Malseed, M Carey, S Torrans, D Duke, E Curran, J Fitzpatrick.

WALES: R Thomas, S French, S Jones, P Richards, E Bingham, L Wilkinson, M Lewis-Williams, X Hughes, J Westwood, S J Thorburn, M Holme.

Subs: E Jackson, O Hoskins, E Drysdale, E Rowlands, I Howell, I Webb, S Robinson.