Ireland men one win away from Olympic qualification after seeing off Japan

Ireland men’s and women’s teams face Spain on Thursday and Friday with the winners booking their ticket to Paris 2024

Ireland’s hopes of their men’s and women’s teams qualifying for the same Olympic Games for the very first time remain on track after the men secured a semi-final place in their qualifying tournament with a 1-0 win over Japan in Valencia on Wednesday evening.

The women achieved the same feat on Tuesday, both sides finishing runners-up to Belgium in their pools and both now preparing for meetings with hosts Spain in the last four.

The women’s semi-final takes place on Thursday morning (live on the RTÉ News channel and the RTÉ Player), while the men are back in action on Friday - both games start at 11.30am. Victory in those semi-finals would secure qualification for Paris, but defeats would leave one more chance in the third place play-offs, a top three finish in the tournament required to make it to Paris.

The men just needed a draw in their final pool game to progress in the tournament, but a 21st minute goal from Luke Madeley, when he fired home from a penalty corner after being teed up by Shane O’Donoghue, gave them victory.

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It was a game of few clear chances, Japan, for all their pace and energy, failing to break down an Irish defence superbly marshalled by man of the match O’Donoghue.

“We just played with that dog within us,” he said after, “that’s the definition of an Irish performance, I’m extremely proud of the team and the effort they put in.”

It was the cagiest of games, the closest to an opening score coming when Jonny Lynch’s reverse strike went just wide of the right post in the first quarter. But after Madeley’s goal, Japan upped the pressure, goalkeeper David Harte called in to action three times in quick succession just before half-time.

Ireland’s chief scare came in the third quarter when Japan were awarded a penalty stroke, but their video referral saw that decision overturned - while a goal-bound effort had hit Lee Cole’s knee, Harte’s positioning directly behind him meant that Cole’s intervention hadn’t prevented a clear goalscoring chance.

Still, Japan upped the pressure as they desperately went in search of the two goals they needed to advance in the tournament, but while earning six penalty corners to Ireland’s two, they failed to take advantage of any of them.

O’Donoghue excelled throughout, while Madeley, Cole, Michael Robson and captain Sean Murray in midfield all chipped in with key blocks and tackles, Ireland remaining composed in the face of increasingly frantic Japanese pressure. But the closest they came to scoring was when Ken Nagayoshi sent a reverse shot over the bar in the final quarter, Ireland, ranked 12 in the world, seeing off the challenge of the team three places below them in the list.

Not that those rankings always bear out, but if they mean anything then Spain will be favourites to beat both Irish teams in their semi-finals. They are four places above the men, and five above the women.

Should Ireland fall at their semi-final hurdles, the women would play Belgium or Britain in that third place play-off, while the men would face Belgium or South Korea. And all those opponents are ranked above them. A tall order, then, but the dog within them will give them a fighting chance.

Ireland: D Harte, L Madeley, T Cross, S O’Donoghue, L Cole, S Murray (capt), M Robson, N Page, J McKee, D Walsh, J Duncan. Subs: K Marshall, M Nelson, P McKibbin, J Lynch, S Hyland, B Johnson.

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