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Ireland savour their success as World Cup slot secured

 

By Graham Hamilton

There's just no stopping the Irish men - last year they defied the odds to reach the Rio Olympics and now they have booked their place in the World Cup finals for the first time in 28 years.

Their 1-0 win over the higher ranked New Zealand on Saturday saw them finish fifth in the qualifier in Johannesburg to secure direct qualification without the worry whether more places would become available after the five continental championships are staged.

The only goal of the game came 11 minutes from the end of a tight contest against a team they have never beaten before, and it was Alan Sothern who scooped the winner over goalkeeper Devon Manchester after he had initially blocked Chris Cargo's dangerous cross.

But, like the success over France 24 hours earlier, it was the Irish defence that took much credit, with Ulster quartet Matthew Bell, Jonathan Bell, Paul Gleghorne and John Jackson immense at the back alongside the Harte twins, Conor and goalkeeper David.

The Irish attack had been blunted somewhat by the injuries picked up by Banbridge strikers John McKee and Eugene Magee, which left them short of back-up on the bench.

McKee broke his collar bone in the quarter-final defeat against Spain last week and Magee rolled his ankle in the first half against New Zealand and had to limp off.

But they remained patient, defending superbly when it mattered and finally taking the rare chance that came their way.

Jackson made some crucial clearances while Harte pulled off a handful of good saves, but with the impressive Cargo pulling the strings in midfield, the chance finally came and Sothern snapped it up gratefully.

So just how good was this outcome in the scale of things?

For a start, coach Craig Fulton had only half of his Rio squad available through either injury or unavailability due to work commitments, which meant that seven of his squad had little or no exposure to international competition at this level.

Five of them had 18 or less caps to their name before arriving in Joburg, but they will return with valuable experience and more maturity which will stand them in good stead.

The two injuries to key strikers also was a major blow, but the Green Machine simply played to their other strengths and ticked off pool wins over South Africa and Egypt before being unlucky to lose their quarter-final clash against Spain 2-1.

But their victories over France and New Zealand in the fifth-eighth play-offs meant they deservedly secured the fifth and final automatic ticket to next year's world cup finals in India.

Now the players and backroom staff can return home to a heroes welcome in the knowledge they have taken hockey here to its highest level yet.

"It was a tight game which could have gone either way but we dug deep after Magee's injury and our defence helped win the game," said coach Fulton.

"We now don't have to wait for someone to do us a favour in the continental championships. We have booked our tickets to the world finals in our own right and it's a good place to be."

Lisnagarvey's Jonathan Bell, who skippered the team, added: "We were bitterly disappointed to lose to Spain in the quarter-finals but we came back strongly and put in big shifts against both France and New Zealand.

"It's testament of the character and belief in our side that we have come so far."

It was interesting to note that two teams from Ireland's pool - Belgium and Germany - ended up contesting yesterday's final, with the Belgians winning 6-1.

The bronze play-off saw Australia crush Spain 8-1.

Final: Belgium 6 Germany 1

Bronze play-off: Australia 8 Spain 1

5th-6th play-off: Ireland 1 New Zealand 0

7th-8th play-off: Frane 3 Egypt 0

9th-10th play-off: South Africa 4 Japan 2.

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