The final of the European Qualifiers of the FIH men’s World Cup 2023 took place on a pleasant, autumn evening in the Welsh capital, with a scene of normality as both sides wore preferred kit – Wales all in red, and the French in blue shirts and white shorts. Both sides had already secured their places in India for 2023, but this match had just as much anticipation and tension as the knockout fixtures earlier in the week.
The first fifteen minutes saw an exchange of possession between the two sides, with Wales edging territory and the threat on goal. However, it was France who had the first opportunities and were awarded a penalty corner right on the buzzer to signal the end of the first quarter. The first penalty corner found a Welsh foot with the resulting corner being well charged down by Rupert Shipperley to see Wales into the first break with the scores all flat.
France started the second quarter on the front foot, applying pressure on Wales across the pitch. Wales’ Rhys Bradshaw saw a green card and tempers continued to run high after a 50/50 challenge saw neither side backing down when trying to influence the umpires decision, which went the way of the French. This theme continued throughout the quarter; Wales feeling that they were on the wrong side of numerous decisions as the French turned up the heat on what was now a rather cold Cardiff evening.
Welsh goalkeeper Jack Tranter was being kept warm though as he made a smart save to keep France at bay. However Frenchman Gaspard Baumgarten soon weaved his way through the traffic inside the D and fired his reverse stick strike into the backboard, giving France a deserved lead for their second quarter performance.
France weren’t happy with just the one goal for their improved efforts. They were keen to punish Wales and had the perfect chance to do so when Timothée Clement deflected wide on the back post from a yard out, which was a real let off for Wales. As Wales were looking for the half time whistle, Tranter was called into action again, saving a French penalty corner to keep the scoreline at 1-0 in favour of the French.
An action packed third quarter saw Clement in the action again for France, this time picking up a green card – and his evening was about to get worse. More cards followed five minutes later with the same colour being shown to Wales’ Jolyon Morgan and French captain Victor Charlet. No sooner had Clement returned from his earlier card, he was back on the side lines, this time with a yellow card meaning five minutes off the pitch.
Wales took their time to take advantages of their numerical advantage. In the 46th minute Rupert Shipperley went searching on a driving run down the right hand side. Taking it past numerous French defenders, he squared the ball onto Luke Hawker’s stick, whose first time finish rattled the back of the net. A supportive home crowd erupted into life to cheer the spirited fight back by the men in red.
To close out the action, Wales’ captain for the evening Lewis Prosser was shown a green card and goalkeeper Jack Tranter saw the ball scrambling around his goal as he made two important saves. With fifteen minutes to play the score remained Wales 1 – France 1.
The final quarter of the competition in Cardiff was a tense affair and, with both sides looking for a winner, some exhilarating end to end hockey was being played. France’s Gaspard Baumgarten was shown a green card, followed by a yellow for his teammate Francois Goyet.
Wales were ruthless and were rewarded with their first penalty corner of the match. A well worked routine may have surprised the French, as Ioan Wall instead of Gareth Furlong was the target of the injection. Wall’s drag flick was deflected up into the air and smashed in from overhead by Rupert Shipperley to start raucous celebrations for Welsh supporters around the pitch.
A nervy five minutes remained with Tranter being required to make saves in quick succession as France pressed for an equaliser; so much so that they sacrificed goalkeeper Arthur Thieffry to have 11 outfield players at their disposal. Just for some late drama, the earlier hero Shipperley was shown a yellow card which would not see him return to the pitch before the final whistle.
Despite being down to ten men, some calm, composed thinking by Jolyon Morgan saw him keep the ball in the corner as the clock ticked down. It was not to be for France as they couldn’t stop Wales’ party in their own backyard and. The final buzzer went and Welsh support staff, coaches and players all ran to each other on the pitch as cheers went up from those in the stands. Wales had done it – champions of the European Qualifier in preparation for the World Cup in 2023.
There were incredible scenes at the National Hockey Centre in Cardiff as Wales celebrated, not only their qualifiers victory, but also qualifying for the FIH World Cup Qualifiers for the first time in history. As for France, a disappointing end for them being on the wrong side of the result in the final, however a fine performance throughout the week also sees them join Wales in India come 2023.
Result: Wales 2 – 1 France
By Will Smale (Twitter: @smaley02)