Ireland 2 South Africa 0
The Irish women’s historic first match in an Olympic Games seemed like a return to form from the team that fought their way to a World Cup final in 2018.
Smiling and singing the national anthem before the match the feelgood factor was back, the mood was sweet.
After a poor European Championship, Ireland opened their Pool A match going forward and never stopped. A quibble, not more than that, is that they may have left some goals on the pitch. Two more would have been a better reflection against a South African team they dominated from start to finish
Ireland’s first goal came after just nine minutes after an opening period of pressure, where the ball was flashed across the face of the South African goal twice, striker Anna O’Flanagan involved in both moves.
With most of the pressure on the South African defence, Ireland forced the first penalty corner of the match for Deirdre Duke to stop and Limerick’s Róisín Upton to flick low and hard to the goalkeeper’s right foot, the power beating goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande as much as the accuracy.
It was the perfect start for Ireland and while South Africa upped their possession, Ireland saw out the first quarter a deserved goal ahead.
Ireland continued to enjoy most of the play with South Africa content to hit long balls to some dangerous strikers but Elena Tice was commanding in defence and Ayeisha McFerran more than a useful back-up.
Ireland built their short corner count to four in the first half, the last of them ending with the excellent Naomi Carroll banging a reverse slap off the post following a goalmouth scramble. It should have gone in.
They then went into the break perhaps feeling good about being a goal ahead but knowing South Africa were still in the match and chances were left on the pitch.
Still playing at a high tempo in 29 degrees, Ireland continued to force circle penetrations but struggled to score a second goal and as the sixth penalty corner was saved South Africa began to find some possession and territory.
Sarah Torrans will kick herself for missing a cross from captain Katie Mullan in the third quarter, the ball just bobbling as she swiped from the penalty spot with no one but the goalkeeper to beat. But she quickly made up for that 43 seconds from the end of the quarter.
Ireland finally pierced the South African defence for a second time as Hannah Matthews pumped a hard ball into the heart of the circle. Defender Robyn Johnson made an effort but it deflected skywards with Torrans masterfully swatting it in with an overhead smash for 2-0.
“Yeah, Hannah smacked it in. I play with Hannah in club [Loreto] so I still have visions of similar goals we scored together,” said Torrans afterwards.
“Took a deflection on the way, I just kept my eye on the ball and took a shot on target and anything can happen then. It was over my head, yeah. I scored a similar one in club.
“You could say I practice it but yeah they are fluky goals but when you get it on target anything happens then. We do a lot of reaction stuff in training, quick touches and stuff so that’s definitely paying off. Getting on the scoresheet for the girls feels special.”“
It was all Ireland at the end, pushing forward for the third goal with some frustration creeping in after their eighth penalty corner was defended by South Africa.
Under the circumstances, first game of the tournament, first win ever in the Olympic Games it is definitely glass half full.
“We just wanted to play with as much freedom as we can,” said Duke. “We’ve worked so hard to get here and now we’re here, we’re just trying to enjoy it. We’re trying to play attacking hockey and I think we won a lot of corners today but didn’t quite get the conversion but it’s a good start.
“There was a lot of pressure on this game. Sometimes it can be a little bit cagey. It was probably a little bit cagey in the warm-up so it was great to get on the scoreboard. And that second goal kind of just settled the nerves and we could have, and should have, gone three, four, five but hopefully we’re saving them.”
With the World Champions the Netherlands, comfortable 5-1 winners over India in their opener, to come on Monday in the second pool game, coach Sean Dancer can take some consolation that Ireland’s opponents will be scorching favourites. Ireland have not beaten the Dutch since the 1960s.
“The first difficult thing about the next game is the time change,” said Dancer. “A 9.15pm start tonight so within 48 hours we are playing in a ten o’clock [in the morning, 2am Irish time] game, so just getting our body clocks right and we actually practised and simulated that a couple of times, just to see what worked for us around preparation in the day and all that type of stuff. That’s the first thing.
“The second thing is you are playing the world No 1. No doubt at all that they are the best team in the world so we are going to go out there and give it our best and try to improve on our performance from the Europeans.”