That they ousted world number four Belgium in the process after a tense 2-2 draw in London adds another feather to the cap of coach Craig Fulton. The South African earlier this summer led his side to a fifth place finish at World League 3, beating higher-ranked Pakistan and Malaysia en route, and within touching distance of Olympic qualification.
Yesterday’s history-making result means 14th-ranked Ireland’s chances of earning direct qualification as continental champions are still alive. They’ve also moved up the World League list, from which the other Olympic qualifiers are drawn, thanks to their exploits in London.
Should world number ones Australia win the Oceania Cup or South Africa win the African Nations Cup, both in October, Fulton’s men will become the first Irish Olympic qualifiers in any team sport since 1948.
Having scraped to a 4-3 win over France on the opening day, Ireland put in a resolute defensive performance against Olympic champions Germany, going down 2-0 with both goals coming in the final seven minutes.
That left them needing a draw against the Belgians, who have flown up the ranks of world hockey in recent years but underperformed at this tournament. A sodden pitch stifled their quick passing game while Ireland struck on the counter, to good effect when Shane O’Donoghue’s tidy baseline work allowed Peter Caruth to finish at the far post for a half-time lead.
That was cancelled out by Sebastian Dockier’s lightning reactions after David Harte had saved magnificently from Florent Van Aubel. But Ireland won their second short corner and John Jackson bunted home in mid-air after an initial switch move was thwarted.
Having got the rub of the green from the officials for the most part - in stark contrast to the last time these sides met at World League 3 - one went against Ireland when their appeals for a technical infringement in the build-up to a scrappy Van Aubel equaliser went unheard.
That set up a grandstand final quarter but Ireland caught a big break when Gauthier Boccard was given an extremely harsh 10-minute yellow card, allowing the Green Machine to hold possession. Back to full complement, Belgium pulled their goalkeeper in favour of an extra outfielder and forced two corners in the final 45 seconds, but some top defensive work from Caruth and Ronan Gormley kept Harte’s goal intact.
“We didn’t want to just defend for a draw,” said man of the match Caruth afterwards. “We knew we had to take it to a Belgian side we’ve never beaten before. The late corners did add to the tension but we practice for those situations for when it comes down to the wire.”
Ireland 2 (P Caruth, J Jackson) Belgium 2 (S Dockier, F Van Aubel); Ireland qualify for the semi-finals on goal difference.