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Irish women on verge of historic Olympic berth

The Irish women's hockey team must defy the formbook if they are to beat Belgium in Antwerp tomorrow and earn a place at the London Olympics.

Gene Muller's side -- who drew 1-1 with the Belgians last night in the meaningless final Pool game -- will also need to keep their composure in front of some of the noisiest fans in the game.

The final inevitably brings back memories of the miserable 3-0 defeat to the same opposition at the European Championships in Germany last summer.

However, Irish high performance director Dave Passmore feels that home advantage could prove to be a double-edged sword in circumstances where a cool head will be needed.

"It will be electric," said the Limerick-based Englishman. "How they deal with that atmosphere will be critical for both teams."

Much may also hinge on the contribution of Ireland's Railway Union front-runner Nikki Evans, who has slotted in well beside more experienced hands such as Lisa Jacob.

The women have benefited from three years of practically full-time training at UCD, plus the confidence gained from their December tour of Argentina.

The official rankings suggest that Ireland, at 14th, are the better side by two notches in the world pecking order and tomorrow is the time to prove it.

The team would also dearly like to achieve what their male counterparts so narrowly failed to achieve seven days earlier when they fell for a last-minute Korean sucker punch.

However, supporters believe that the Irish women now have the firepower and the self-belief to silence the home crowd at the Beerschot club grounds and snatch a first-ever invitation to the Games.

Optimism is garnered from the new-found efficiency of the penalty corner machine, which failed to produce a score from six attempts in the ill-starred previous encounter.

Muller has nurtured the drag flicking skills of Audrey O'Flynn -- who should be fit to play after injuring her neck against Spain -- and Michelle Harvey from Pegasus in Belfast to be potent weapons.

Belgium v Ireland,

Live, tomorrow, RTE 1/ Eurosport 2, 3.30

Irish Independent