Ireland women see Olympic dream die as Britain book passage to Paris

Sean Dancer’s side made Britain work hard but goals from Sarah Jones and Katie Robertson secure qualification

Ireland 1 Britain 2

Valencia 2024 was a far cry from Donnybrook 2019, when Ireland’s women beat Canada to earn their first ever Olympic qualification. There’ll be no trip to Paris, though, Britain’s 2-1 win in Saturday’s third-place playoff clinching them the final qualifying place for this summer’s Games. Ireland are left to ponder what might have been, not least their penalty shoot-out defeat against Spain in the semi-finals.

Once again, Sean Dancer’s team defended brilliantly, but once again it was their struggle to be clinical at the other end of the pitch that cost them. They failed to score against Belgium and Spain in this tournament, and if it wasn’t for Hannah McLoughlin’s penalty corner conversion with the last action of the game, they’d have drawn a blank again.

But it was the gutsiest of displays against a team that hasn’t failed to qualify for the Olympics in 20 years, and who won bronze in Tokyo last time around. And Britain also had four survivors from the team that won gold in Rio in their squad. Their relief at full-time was evident, Ireland had given them a hell of a test.

Britain had the brighter start to the game, Hannah French’s early close-range effort deflected just wide of the post while Ayeisha McFerran twice had to be quick off her line to clear danger. And McFerran had to be at her very best when she made a double save from Elena Rayer and Katie Robertson, Sarah Hawkshaw then clearing Robertson’s goalbound lob from the rebound off the line with her stick.

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But after those early scares, Ireland grew in to the game, Niamh Carey’s pace on the wings causing Britain problems, as did the efforts of a tireless Katie Mullan, who never gave their defence a moment’s rest.

Three minutes into the second quarter, though, Britain took the lead from their first penalty corner of the game, Sarah Torrans blocking Giselle Ansley’s initial strike but Sarah Jones deflecting home Sophie Hamilton’s shot from the rebound.

Ireland’s response was typically spirited, but they just couldn’t create any clear openings, Róisín Upton’s effort from their first penalty of the game deflected wide early in the third quarter.

And the fourth quarter was barely up and running when Britain made it 2-0, Robertson scoring after being set up by French’s deft work in the circle.

Ireland took off McFerran for the last seven minutes to give them an extra outfield player, and they forced three penalty corners late on. From the last, McLoughlin, who had an outstanding tournament, scored, but with that the final hooter sounded.

Britain, then, take the last remaining qualifying spot for Paris, joining hosts France, Australia, the Netherlands, China, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, the United States, Japan, Belgium and Spain in the 12-team tournament.

Ireland have European Championships and World Cups up ahead to keep them busy, Los Angeles 2028 feeling like a lifetime away. More than likely, there’ll be a few retirements before then, while Dancer’s position will be re-evaluated. An end of an era, perhaps, but this group of players have provided no end of spills and thrills. Valencia, though, proved a bridge too far.

IRELAND: A McFerran; R Upton, H McLoughlin, E Curran, B Harper; S Hawkshaw, C Beggs, K McKee; N Carey, K Mullan (capt), N Carroll.

Subs: E Murphy, S McAuley, M Carey, S Torrans, E Neill, C Watkins, D Duke.

BRITAIN: S Heesh; A Toman, G Ansley, H Pearne-Webb (capt); S Jones, F Crackles, S Hamilton, L Owsley; H French, S Robertson, I Petter.

Subs: L Roper, A Costello, E Rayer, T Howard, K Robertson, M Pritchard, L Walker.

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