Ireland almost certain of World Cup spot
Today’s nail-biting victory over France should be enough for Irish men
The Ireland team celebrate winning their penalty shootout during the 5th-8th place play-off against France. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images for FIH
Barring a series of miracles, Ireland’s men have assured their place at a first World Cup since 1990 as they secured a shootout win over France in Johannesburg.
David Harte made two brilliant saves at the death, showing why he is the two-time world goalkeeper of the year, before Chris Cargo slotted a low shot past Corentin Saunier to snatch a 4-3 victory after normal time had finished 1-1.
The hour of regulation play was fraught throughout with France having the best of it, going ahead early on via Hugo Genestet.
Four penalty corner chances in the first half for Ireland went unpunished, adding to the tension after they let nine of those set pieces slip by in their quarter-final against Spain.
In that quarter-final tie, Ireland were by far the more aggressive. This time, the focus was far more on defensive bravery against a French side playing with a swagger that belied their lower ranking.
Nonetheless, Ireland stuck to their task and from a rare chance on the counter, Sean Murray was pegged back by Jean-Baptiste Forgues on the right baseline. It led to a penalty stroke that Shane O’Donoghue roofed to make it 1-1 in the third quarter.
After that, a healthy chunk of defending was required with Conor Harte - nursing a shoulder injury - getting through a mountain of work while Paul Gleghorne and John Jackson put their bodies on the line to shut down chances.
Jackson, indeed, dove to block a Blaise Rogeau shot with three seconds to go and insure the extra chance.
The shootout was the same method they beat the French on in March in a World League tie in Stormont, knowing they had Harte to watch their backs.
“When you have the best keeper in the world, you are pretty confident going into a shootout,” match-winner Cargo explained while coach Craig Fulton said he “didn’t really mind” it going the distance.
There was still plenty of drama with Eugene Magee adjudged to have fouled goalkeeper Corentin Saunier in his one-on-one, only for the video review to reverse the decision in Ireland’s favour.
Harte swept away Guillaume Deront and Genestet’s chances, setting the stage for Cargo to slip home an incredibly calm effort.
Afterwards Fulton hailed his goalkeeper, who missed part of the tournament with concussion but came back to have a massive influence.
“It took him out of his rhythm for four or five days and we almost had to rehabilitate that confidence back into him,” said Fulton. “He’s also our captain and wasn’t around so it did change the dynamic.
“The guys did really well to respond. That was key and we came back with improved performances [in the last two games]. The big one was against Spain and we are disappointed [not to kill them off] about that but will learn from it. We did really well today when it mattered.”
It gives them a place in the World League’s fifth place play-off against New Zealand on Saturday. Finishing fifth will guarantee a place in India 2018 at the first attempt. But a minimum finish of sixth will be well within the threshold when the continental championships are tallied in the coming months.
Among the elements that would have to go against them, for example, would be Papua New Guinea - the world’s number 61 - beating both Australia and New Zealand. Similar scenarios in Africa and the Pan-American Games would also have to occur.
Cargo, though, is keen that it doesn’t even come down to that: “We want to guarantee our qualification here, finish as high as we can and get all those ranking points so I can’t wait to face New Zealand.”
They play on Saturday at 5pm in Johannesburg while the Irish women are on at 10.15am in their seventh place play-off. That one is also important in potentially boosting their chances but they will have to wait a few months to learn their fates no matter what.
Ireland 1 (S O’Donoghue) France 1 (H Genestet)
Ireland: D Harte, J Jackson, J Bell, M Bell, C Cargo, M Nelson, A Sothern, S O’Donoghue, C Harte, J Duncan, S Cole. Subs: E Magee, N Glassey, S Murray, P Gleghorne, S Loughrey, J Carr
France: A Thieffry, P van Straaten, H Genestet, S Martin-Brisac, V Lockwood, C Masson, N Dumont, G Deront, J-B Forgues, V Charlet, E Tynevez. Subs: C Peters-Deutz, J-L Kieffer, B Rogeau, G Baumgarten, F Goyet, E Curty, C Saunier