Darren Smith’s charges, needing to finish at least fourth in their five-team pool to advance to the quarter-finals and get two shots at getting to Rio, had spoke in the build-up about the need to continue their recent habit of defeating higher-ranked sides.
That realistically means defeating lowly Uruguay in a later pool game as a minimum requirement. But the Green Army gave their hopes an even bigger boost with yesterday’s success over the South Africans — ranked three places above Ireland, at 11th in the world — inspired by a Nikki Evans hat-trick and a stunning solo goal by Nicci Daly.
With former UCC and Munster player Áine Connery getting her 100th cap, Evans got Ireland off to a flyer in the fifth minute. The UCD woman collected Chloe Watkins’ raking pass before ghosting around the South African goalkeeper and finishing from a tight angle, although Kate Dillon may have got the final touch on the goal-line.
South Africa were level shortly afterwards when Kelley Manuel redirected a powerful long ball past Emma Gray from the top of the circle, but Evans regained Ireland’s lead when she touched in Cliodhna Sargent’s short corner slap.
There were chances at both ends before an excellent Irish move at the start of the final quarter saw the Watkins-Evans combination link up superbly again. The former collected Anna O’Flanagan’s lay-off on the right hand side and drove the ball across the circle for the diving Evans to get a reverse-stick deflection to the far bottom corner.
“The hat-trick sums her up,” said captain Megan Frazer of Evans afterwards.
“Nikki is an absolute workhorse. If there’s a chance of a goal, she will just throw herself at it. Whatever she has to do to get it in!”
The coup de grace was supplied by Daly, who collected a long ball from the back 25 metres from goal and evaded two South African defenders.
One of her mid-air touches took the ball high enough for her to crush a first-time volley to the backboard as it fell, completing a goal of the tournament contender.
It sends Ireland into today’s clash with world number six Germany — who hammered Uruguay 8-0 — in buoyant form. The higher a points total Ireland can amass, the easier their quarter-final will theoretically be, but the key game remains Saturday’s clash against Uruguay, as victory there is likely to guarantee a place in the last eight.
FIH Women’s World League 3, Valencia: Pool A: Ireland 4 (N Evans 3, N Daly) South Africa 1; Germany 8 Uruguay 0.