Cargo keeps cool in shoot-out to all but fire Ireland into World Cup finals
Ireland 1 France 1
Ireland's men can start planning ahead for the 2018 World Cup finals after a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over France yesterday in the qualifying competition in Johannesburg.
Ulsterman Chris Cargo was calmness personified in the tense shoot-out - players have eight seconds to run at the goalkeeper and try to score - and the former Bangor man kept his cool under fierce pressure to tuck the ball under the keeper and ensure a 4-3 success and secure a place in the fifth-sixth play-off against New Zealand today (5pm).
A win over the Black Sticks will automatically guarantee tickets to the World Cup finals - for the first time since 1990 - but even a sixth-place finish will be enough after the continental championships take place, as this will free up more slots.
The Irish, at worst, will be first reserve and rest assured that August's European Championships will be won by either Netherlands, Germany, England, Belgium or Spain - and these five have already qualified for the World Cup, so that place will then become available.
Another near certainty is the Pan-American series - it's always Argentina or Canada who win this, and both have already qualified - and the same can be said about Oceania, where Australia always come out on top.
Although Irish coach Craig Fulton knows that qualification is virtually assured, he has already warned his players that he wants a win over New Zealand today to rule out any doubt.
The France game was by no means Ireland's best - they trailed to a Hugo Genestet goal from a penalty corner and, after missing four penalty corners, they finally levelled when Garvey's Sean Murray won a penalty stroke and Shane O'Donoghue sent it high into the net.
The 1-1 draw meant a shoot-out and France converted their first three. But the Irish kept in touch with Conor Harte getting their first, Eugene Magee winning a penalty stroke which O'Donoghue converted for the second, and John Jackson slipping home the third.
But Irish keeper David Harte underlined why he is the best in the world by saving France's next two efforts, and although O'Donoghue put his effort wide, Cargo stepped up and made no mistake to start celebrations.
"We're over the moon," said Cargo. "Yes, I was a bit nervous, but I knew what there was to do and I did it.
"We have the best keeper in the world, and he can generally save two in a shoot-out, so we were confident."
Fulton added: "Tournament hockey is about playing your best when it counts. It was always going to be tight against France - they're a very dynamic team and we had to defend well."
Banbridge striker Johnny McKee missed the game after having two plates inserted in his collarbone but will be watching from the sidelines today.
New Zealand beat Egypt 2-0 in the other fifth-eighth play-off, while Germany beat Spain in a shoot-out to reach the final where they will play Belgium, who beat Australia 2-1.
Meanwhile, the Irish women face India in the seventh-eighth play-off today (10.15am) and a win would also give them a great chance of reaching the World finals, depending on who wins the five continental championships.