A flawless third quarter led by Ireland captain and player of the match Sean Murray brought Ireland to within 60 minutes of a maiden FIH Pro League berth as they beat Malaysia comfortably in the semi-final of the Nations Cup this morning.
A moment of magic in the 41st minute from Ben Walker was the catalyst for an incredible final third from the boys in green. Walker made a chance from nothing, dinking the ball over his defender’s stick before he spun and blasted an unsavable snapshot into the top right corner. Jeremy Duncan backed that goal up with two superb finishes as Ireland looked ice-cold in front of the goal in a must-win match.
The first half was littered with classy skills going forward for both teams as well as last-ditch tackles that were punished with regular cards. The teams had clearly done their homework, as the two penalty corner attacks looked somewhat toothless and plenty of opportunities were shot wide, although Lee Cole did save well on the line for the second Malaysia penalty corner – making the most of his cricketing background to help the ball around the corner and out of play.
The game opened up for Ireland as the first quarter wore on, with a clear game plan to suck Malaysia into the pockets in midfield, before making use of the space on the, paying dividends. Malaysia altered tactics at the break and had their most commanding period of the game in the second quarter, drawing plenty of unforced errors from Ireland. Malaysia had chances but will be left to rue errors in the circle as they mistrapped the ball in front of the goal, as well as running the ball over the end line with almost criminal regularity.
The game remained scoreless at half-time with the commentators noting that it was a match-up of Malaysia’s skills versus the organisation of Ireland; but it was the skills of Walker that brought out the creativity in his team as Ireland bossed the game from that point on.
It was an entertaining match to watch if you were an Irish supporter with plenty of silky skills and breath-taking pinpoint passes from the boys in green; no skills more impressive than the first finish from Jeremy Duncan just two minutes after Ireland had scored their first. Ireland had a three-on-four in the circle, but incredibly Duncan found himself free in front of the goal with the ball on the end of his stick. His quick release with a flick of the wrists was too fast for the ‘keeper as he found the right inside post to double the lead.
Duncan’s second, eight minutes from time, all but assured his side of their spot in the final. Conor Empey broke down the right and beat his defender on the inside before fluffing a pass going into the circle. He somehow managed to win it back and keep his composure to get his eyes up and find Duncan who controlled and shot home off the left post.
Malaysia had a good period with five minutes to go, but it was too little, too late, as their penalty corners again came to nothing and Ireland kept a sheet clean.
Player of the match Sean Murray was elated at the final whistle. “Fantastic, it’s just fantastic,” he said. “It’s nice to be player of the match but to be fair to the guys up front, they were awesome today; they took their chances. It’s just a fantastic feeling to go into tomorrow with a great opportunity to qualify for the Pro League.”
Head Coach Mark Tumilty was full of praise for his team’s complete performance. “I am delighted with the result today and the performance. It was excellent to see us score three goals from open play. Our corners have been a key part earlier in the tournament but today in the semi-final, I’m thrilled with our finishing from open play,” he said.
Speaking about the team’s tactics, he said: “I think we got it spot on today and a lot of credit needs to go to our new assistant Neville Rothman for how he helped set the team up going into that game. Also, credit to the players with how they implemented what was asked of them. Our defensive game was very good and when we got the opportunity to attack, we delivered that, especially in the second half.”
There is very little time for his team to rest, with the final tomorrow at 1.15 pm, but Tumilty will be treating it like any other match. “Preparing for tomorrow it’s about keeping the routine the same,” he insisted. “There are massive implications for hockey in Ireland if we could get to the FIH Pro League, but our focus is on a performance again – if we can produce a performance, the result hopefully will look after itself.”
Ben Walker’s finish is one that will live long in Irish hockey memory, but Tumilty knew he had it in him. “Benny is the one forward in the country that has a finish like that in him. He may miss easier chances at times but he definitely has that piece of magic that he showed today at a very important stage in the game.”
Speaking about other standout players, the head coach found it difficult to pick out just a couple. “Shane (O’Donoghue) and Ben (Walker) have been excellent. They have both played some of their best hockey in a green shirt in this tournament, especially Sean, but I think Shane moving into the back four has made that much more solid. But I also think it’s worth mentioning the other defenders. The six defenders and two keepers deserve a lot of credit because they give us such a good foundation to defend with also to build from an attacking point of view.”
He finished by saying: “Overall it was a good day, and hopefully tomorrow can be a better one.”
It will be one of Ireland’s best if the Green Machine can go to the well again and summon the strength and inspiration to march on and win the final of the historic Inaugural Men’s Hockey Nation’s Cup and take the coveted spot in the 2023 FIH Pro League.
They play the host country South Africa on December 4th at 1:15 pm. Can be watched live on the https://watch.hockey/ app