Belfast Telegraph

Ulster ace Megan: we're now aiming to feel on top of the world

 

By John Flack

It's the biggest day in Irish hockey's 130-year history - and Megan Frazer is looking forward to today's women's World Cup semi-final with Spain in London (2pm) more than most.

Frazer, one of six Ulster players in the 18-strong squad, finally exorcised her personal demons in Thursday night's dramatic penalty shoot-out win over India.

The Londonderry woman saw her penalty rebound agonisingly off the post at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Valencia three years ago denying Ireland a place at the Rio showpiece as China went through instead.

Frazer is also edging her way back to full fitness although she's not quite there yet as Ireland prepare to take on the Spanish, who are ranked 11th in the world, just five places higher than Graham Shaw's team.

Ireland are well into bonus territory, having overcome higher ranked teams on three occasions already at this tournament.

Even a defeat today wouldn't be the end of their World Cup dream as they would go into a bronze medal play-off tomorrow against the losers of the other semi-final between holders Netherlands and Australia.

Frazer believes, like the rest of the squad, that a win over the Spanish today is far from impossible, having once again defied the odds to beat India for the second time after a 1-0 victory earlier on.

The 27-year-old simply couldn't bring herself to watch as Ulster goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran denied the Asians three times in the shoot-out to spark the celebrations on Thursday evening.

She said: "To be honest, I couldn't bear to watch, so I ended up just looking at the reaction of the crowd.

"Penalty shoot-outs are always so difficult and, at the end of the day, fate will take its course.

"Did I want to take one? I was tempted to put my hand up but I hadn't practised them in two years, so I don't think I wanted to take the risk.

"There were a lot of emotions and not everyone who took the penalties in Valencia is here for different reasons.

"Some have retired or moved on and, yeah, Ayeisha was outstanding.

"It's such a brave thing to do when you agree to take a penalty in a shoot-out."

Frazer says she has been grateful for the extra rest days at this World Cup having been sidelined from international hockey for two years due to a bad cruciate injury.

Game by game in London, there have been signs that she is nearing the talismanic player she was before sustaining the sickening injury in October 2016.

Frazer added: "The format of this tournament with a lot of rest days until now has really helped my recovery.

"After the first game I had a bit of a reaction with my knee, a bit of swelling.

"It was a bit sore then, but as the games have progressed that reaction has got less and less, so I don't expect any more problems.

"To be honest, though, I feel I am still nowhere near 100 per cent up to my normal game but I do feel like it's getting better as time goes on, getting more touches of the ball and more time on the pitch.

"I've been working on my strength around the knee and there are no problems there.

"To drop into a World Cup has been mind blowing really and it's been a bit weird trying to grow with each game and trying to build up the confidence more than anything."

Frazer believes Spain are beatable in today's semi-final and the teams certainly know each other well.

Ireland have an old score to settle, having lost 7-2 in the corresponding European Championship game in Amsterdam last year, when Frazer was still out of action.

The teams last met in a shared series in January when, once again, Ireland shipped seven goals in the first match, only to respond with a 4-0 win.

However, while Ireland did the business against India, Frazer says there is still room for improvement if the wonderful journey is to culminate in a place in tomorrow's final.

Which would be remarkable when you consider the Irish are ranked 15th of the 16 competing nations and were expected to get an early plane back from London after the three pool games against full-time outfits.

Instead they beat the USA 3-1 and India 1-0 before losing 1-0 to World No.2 England.

That left them top of Pool B and an automatic place in the quarter-finals instead of having a crossover game to earn a spot in the last eight, and it was the USA who unexpectedly caught the early plane.

Then came that penalty shoot-out win over India on Thursday with fellow Ulster player, goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran, the hero by saving the first three India attempts.

With Roisin Upton, Ali Meeke and Chloe Watkins all converting, the Green Army had achieved the unthinkable, a place in the world semi-finals.

"With playing Spain so often, I think we've got the best semi-final possible and have avoided competition favourites, the Netherlands, so we're looking forward to it very much," said Frazer.

"But It was very tactically astute by India in the quarter-final - they were able to get numbers around the ball constantly and we were under pressure when we tried to move it.

"That meant there weren't a lot of passes on, so we ended up running with the ball a little bit more than we had talked about before the game.

"The pitch is a little bit sticky and it can be difficult when you're running with the ball and there were quite a lot of missed passes from us, so we'll have to improve on that."

The six Ulster girls have all been instrumental in the success.

McFerran (pictured left with Grace O'Flanagan) has been an outstanding goalkeeper and surely will win the goalkeeper of the tournament award, while Shirley McCay and Zoe Wilson have been a tower of strength in defence.

Frazer's contribution has increased game by game as her fitness improves, Lizzie Colin has thrived in a hard-working midfield and skipper Katie Mullan has spearheaded the attack as well as chasing back when needed.

Mullan praised her players for their efforts in the searing heat on Thursday night and is confident that they can meet today's challenge.

She said: "The work rate was incredible, the girls never stopped fighting for every single ball.

"It was hard out there in the heat, really tough, but we just kept going and kept going and I think that was what took us through the shoot-out as well.

"It's incredible to have made it so far and this is something that's not going to hit us for a while now because we're in our bubble.

"We keep believing and we've been looking to the next game virtually straight after the shoot-out with a shorter turnaround to prepare."

If Ireland do beat Spain, then the 15th ranked team will be in tomorrow's final against World No. 1 Netherlands or No. 5 Australia (4.30pm).

If they lose then it's the bronze play-off against the losers of the Netherlands and Australia game (2pm).

No matter what happens, it's been a wonderful journey for a great bunch of women who may be underfunded but pay up for it in many other ways.

Belfast Telegraph

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