Anna O’Flanagan’s poacher’s double propelled the Irish women to a second successive World Cup appearance, crucially firing home the winner with 11 minutes to go against Wales in Pisa.
It saw Ireland grind out the win – and the place at the 2022 showpiece – against a physically robust Welsh outfit who were this tournament’s surprise package and made life exceptionally difficult throughout.
The Green Army had hit the front early on courtesy of O’Flanagan through a lovely team move featuring Lena Tice and Sarah Torrans. Wales levelled, though, before the end of the first quarter through Isabelle Howell from a well-worked penalty corner.
That set up an incredibly tense middle phase with both side enjoying spells in control. But the game opening up in the closing quarter when Wales were reduced to nine players with Phoebe Richards and Emily Rowlands going to the sin-bin.
In their absence, Zara Malseed intercepted wide on the left and utilised the extra space to bounce an inviting pass to O’Flanagan who smashed home on the volley.
Ireland duly held Wales at arm’s length for the remaining minutes to finish off a huge week’s work, backing up wins over France and Belarus to take the one ticket on offer to the main event which will be played in Amsterdam and Valencia next summer.
“What just happened here is a huge moment for the legacy of this team, continuing to build on the success we have already had,” captain Katie Mullan said in the aftermath.
“We knew it would be a defining moment. It wasn’t pretty but it shows the character within our group to come away from the game with a win from such a tough battle. Credit to Wales, they put on a big performance and took us right to the end.”
The tournament followed a gruelling schedule in 2021 with June’s European Championships followed by the Olympics and then less than 12 weeks to regroup with a new look panel for this competition.
“We’ve played three tough tournaments in one year at international level with the Euros, the Olympics and this qualifier. It is pretty unheard of so it was always going to be a tough ask after the Olympics to bring the group back together to come here and do the job.
“I am so proud of us for doing that. Now, we have another amazing tournament to look forward to and prepare for.
“This group needs to be going to major tournament after major tournament. This was the first roadblock after 2018 and this is a massive achievement. It may not seem like it is bigger than some of what we have done in the past but, for our sport, to continue to grow the way it has and to continue to inspire the next generation, it was so important for us.
“I have no doubt the players who have stepped away and retired in recent weeks will be the most happy watching it today, seeing us get over the line because they will be the ones in the stands next summer supporting us.
Ireland were dealt a blow before the start with Hannah McLoughlin forced out through injury. It meant Kilpatrick came into the line-up for her first cap, a huge stage on which the Belfast Harlequins defender acquitted herself well.
Like the semi-final, the Green Army were on the board inside the first 10 minutes following another flying start. After an early corner chance went incomplete, Ireland settled into a good routine of pressure and worked the opening goal when Tice fired a ball toward the circle, Torrans touched it behind her back into the mixer where O’Flanagan sniped to tip the ball under Roseanne Thomas.
A couple more corner chances were earned but Wales nicked a set piece of their own in the closing seconds of the quarter and produced a perfect move to the right post where Isabelle Howell slid in to make it 1-1.
The free-flowing format of Saturday’s win over Belarus was hard to come and while Naomi Carroll went close and Chloe Watkins’ searching passes into the circle caused danger, the clear-cut openings were hard to come by.
Indeed, the Dragons had the upper hand in the third quarter with Tice required to do some important clean-up work in the goalmouth to maintain parity.
That was until Richards cleaned out Michelle Carey to ship a yellow card. Seconds later, Rowlands and Torrans followed to the naughty step for an altercation in the Welsh circle, leaving lots more room to move.
And that was when Malseed read a loose pass out of defence and quickly sped toward goal, chipping the ball up as she went. Her bouncing pass evaded to encroaching defenders and picked out O’Flanagan who crashed home.
Wales attempted to throw everything forward in the closing 10 minutes but Ireland closed out the tie with composure and steel, putting them on course for the World Cup.
Captain Mullan paid tribute to O’Flanagan’s goalscoring heroics while also saying the new faces played a vital role with Niamh Carey popping up with Saturday’s winner against Belarus and the likes of Ellen Curran, Erin Getty and Kilpatrick also making their tournament debuts.
“Anna showed today why she is a world class forward, the best forward to come through Irish women’s hockey. She fronted up today when the pressure was on.
“She deserves this moment of elation but I have to give such a special mention to the new girls who have come in, the energy and excitement they have brought. They fronted up in key moments and we couldn’t have done it without them and the future is very bright for this team.”
A McFerran, E Getty, R Upton, K Mullan, L Tice, N Carroll, C Watkins, S Hawkshaw, A O’Flanagan, N Carey, S McAuley.
Z Malseed, M Carey, S Torrans, D Duke, E Curran, J Kilpatrick, L Murphy.
R Thomas, S French, S Jones, P Richards, E Bingham, L Wilkinson, M Lewis-Williams, X Hughes, J Westwood, S-J Thorburn, M Holme.
O Hoskins, S Robinson, E Drysdale, I Howell, E Rowlands, I Webb, E Jackson.
C Martin-Schmets (BEL), I El Hajem (FRA)