Ireland and Canada set for winner-takes-all Sunday showdown after first leg stalemate at Energia Park
Ireland 0 Canada 0
The Irish women’s Olympic hopes will go down to the wire after the first leg of their two-legged qualifier ended 0-0 with all the main drama set for Sunday evening (7.10pm).
Sean Dancer’s side were left to rue five missed penalty corner chances in the second quarter, which may come back to haunt the side.
Those were Ireland’s big moments; Canada, for their part, offered only marginal threat as neither side ever got to grips with the conditions.
The event itself, though, was one for the record books. Building on last summer’s World Cup silver medal, the crowd of 6,086 was the biggest for women’s international sport in Ireland, outdoing by 40 people the Six Nations game between Ireland and England at the same venue earlier this year.
Shirley McCay became the first sportswoman from the island to hit the 300 cap mark, while it was also the first tie in Ireland to use a drop-in pitch.
The turf, mainly due to the incessant rain, played at a dead tempo with limited bounce, taking all the sting and pace out of the game. That fed into a tense, error-strewn opening quarter with precious little incident.
As time wore on, Ireland started to show flashes of inspiration in the second phase as Nicci Daly and Chloe Watkins started to glide by their opponents.
And, with a higher press employed, Canada were decamped in their own 23-metre zone and, in a packed circle, the Green Army started to run up a healthy penalty corner count.
But Sean Dancer’s charges were left to rue five unconverted set-pieces, with shots from Roisin Upton and Zoe Wilson repelled.
Goalkeeper Kaitlyn Williams was crucial during that phase, her lively presence able to react to efforts that had their full thrust taken off them.
After the big break, Canada upped their input with Sara McManus excelling at the base of the defence while Brienne Stairs gave a rare forward impetus.
Ireland were opting too often to go to the long-handle, attempting to find crash balls, playing into Canada’s ultra-defensive make-up and it made the second half a real grind.
Ayeisha McFerran was eventually tested in the 43rd minute, a rudimentary block to Steph Norlander at the back post.
She also had to get down low to deny Canada’s only penalty corner with four minutes left on the clock.
That kept it 0-0 and all square going into the second leg of the contest. For Ireland, there does remain an interesting sub-plot to proceedings with the game potentially being rendered meaningless from events elsewhere.
Should Great Britain and Germany win their ties – they lead 3-0 and 2-0 respectively – Ireland will be in position to avail of a "lucky loser" spot created by South Africa’s Olympic committee’s decision not to send their women’s team to Tokyo despite being African champs.
That issue, though, will not be formally confirmed until later this month and so Sean Dancer and his troops will want to make sure to seal the deal on the night.
Ireland: A McFerran, R Upton, K Mullan, S McCay, L Tice, B Barr, C Watkins, L Colvin, N Daly, A O’Flanagan, Z Wilson
Subs: S Barr, N Evans, G Pinder, H Matthews, S Hawkshaw, D Duke, L Murphy
Canada: K Williams, K Wright, D Hennig, R Donohoe, K Johansen, N Aourissea, S McManus, A Woodcroft, B Stairs, S Johnston, S Norlander
Subs: A Lee, E Wong, K Leahy, H Haughn, N Woodcroft, M Secco, R Harris
Umpires: Y Makar (CRO), M Meister (GER)