After going in front twice, Ireland lost to Japan by the odd goal in five to finish in fourth position at the Women’s FIH Hockey Nations Cup this afternoon. Sean Dancer’s young side played an attractive brand of hockey all week, going toe-to-toe with some of the best sides in the world, but Japan’s cutting edge in front of goal made the difference in the end.
Despite a goalless first half, this bronze medal match was anything but cagey. Japan put pressure on the Ireland defence in the outlet, winning plenty of ball in their attacking half but tending to waste possession. Ireland, by contrast, looked dangerous on the counter, Carey twins Michelle and Niamh particularly dangerous using their speed and skill on the wings.
The third quarter was one for the neutral, four goals being scored as Ireland went in front twice, only for Japan to come back almost immediately on both occasions.
The Japan defence proved difficult to break down, so it was always going to take some magic to break the deadlock, and it was captain Katie Mullan who, with the deftest of touches, found a way through five minutes into the second half. Sarah McAuley hit a hopeful cross from the left side. Her bouncing ball went goalward and Mullan glanced the ball past her defender, slightly changing the line of the ball and wrongfooting the Japan goalkeeper.
The umpire referred to the video umpire, asking for confirmation that it did touch an Ireland stick. There was no advice possible and so the decision went with the on-field umpire – the goal stood and Ireland went one in front. Japan won their first penalty corner four minutes later, however, and though the initial shot was saved by Liz Murphy in goal, it fell kindly to the unmarked Mai Toriyama who didn’t need a second invitation to bring her side level.
The scores didn’t remain level for long, though, as Ireland went straight back down the pitch to win their first corner of the game, and an incredible team passing move saw Niamh Carey tap in a brilliantly executed routine to give Ireland the lead again in the 40th minute.
But not even a minute later, Ireland conceded yet another corner, and Japan showed their own precision with a roofed backhand deflection to draw level again.
In the end, it was, perhaps, indiscipline that cost Ireland, two green cards in the final quarter giving Japan the edge for four minutes of the toughest part of the game. With under five minutes to go, a beautifully struck ball from the right bounced through to a Japan player on the post who, under pressure from her defender, put the ball across goal in the air, and Japan captain Yuri Nagai tapped a difficult chance in to give her team the deciding goal.
Ireland withdrew their goalkeeper to play with 11 outfield for the last four minutes of the match, and the girls in green pushed hard for an equaliser with chances for Zara Malseed and Naomi Carroll, as well as a couple of penalty corners, but the Japan defence stood strong to hold out for the bronze medal.
Coach Sean Dancer is pleased with his team’s progress, if not today’s result. “Obviously we’re very disappointed not to get the third place today,” he admitted. “We felt we played some really good hockey over the last few days and we were up for the game today but credit to Japan, they were pretty good and they took their opportunities. So, we’re disappointed with today but overall, really pleased with what we’re doing.”
He is full of praise for the new tournament for nations just outside the top level. “I think Nations Cup is a great innovation by the FIH,” he said. “It allows teams just outside the top 10, like us, to play some quality games and it’s really important for us to play these games under pressure.
“Next year is a really big year for us. It’s all about preparation for Olympic qualifying and that’s going to be the next step. We need to go home from here, have a break, review the things that worked well and work really hard on those little details to get to the next step,” he finished.
Captain Katie Mullan can already see the bigger picture. “It’s been a fantastic week in terms of learning for this group,” she asserts. “We have come away finished higher than our ranking based off the teams that are here. We are disappointed today not to come away with the bronze medal, and we were disappointed not to get more out of the semi-final, but we are putting it up to some of the best teams in the world – India [whom Ireland lost to in a penalty shootout] finished third in the Pro League last year which tells you a lot about where we are right now. We have some clear things to work on now going into 2023, but I think when we reflect, we can take a lot of positives from the tournament, especially with such a young group that’s coming together really well and I think the fact that we’re disappointed says a lot about the group as well.”
As always, Ireland’s supporters have added to the players’ experience. “We’ve had some fantastic support over here in Valencia but also from home in Ireland,” said Mullan. “So just on a personal note, we want to say a massive thank you to everyone who has continued to support us on our journey. Huge thanks have to go to Park Developments, Softco and Sport Ireland for their continued support as well.
“We have a big year coming up next year and we just want to continue to drive on and inspire the next generation of kids. Playing three major tournaments this year was a really tough ask after losing so many players to retirement but we’ve filled the gap exceptionally, and special mention to our staff and the commitment that they’ve shown in guiding us to be better,” she added.