Anna O’Flanagan’s brilliant four-goal salvo propelled Ireland’s women to within touching distance of an FIH Series Finals semi-final berth as they blitzed the Czech Republic 8-1 in Banbridge.
It means barring a horror-show against the tournament low-ranks Singapore on Tuesday, they are now set to skip the quarter-final, putting them one win away from a guaranteed Olympic qualifier showdown.
After a lack-lustre 2-1 win on Saturday against Malaysia, this was a performance of real quality. Two years ago, the Czechs caused Ireland real problems, threatening to scupper their place in Europe’s top tier.
Fast forward to 2019 and this was no contest as O’Flanagan’s sharpness and Lizzie Colvin’s tenacity in midfield underpinned a breathtaking display.
“If you look back two years, our base level performance now is so much higher,” O’Flanagan said. “We do have some bad days but, now, if we do – like Saturday – we can still grind out a result. Against the Czechs a few years ago, we struggled but it wasn’t a problem for us today. It shows how far we have grown and what we can bring to these tournaments.”
Colvin had been instructed to “smell the turnover” by coach Gareth Grundie and her aggression in the midfield exchanges, offering “false space” before pouncing, set the tone.
In attack, the warning shots had already been fired inside 75 seconds from Katie Mullan before her second shot in anger bounced awkwardly off Barbora Chechakova’s boot and face, straight to the waiting Nicci Daly to pop home.
O’Flanagan’s and Chloe Watkins’ interchanges were a joy to behold and they combined for the second before the end of the first quarter, the former spinning in front of the goalkeeper for 2-0.
That half-time scoreline perhaps flattered the Czech who offered up just one tame attack with Adela Lehovcova’s shot bumbling off course.
The goals began to flow in the second half. O’Flanagan twice dummied a shot on her backhand before slotting the third on her openside. Zoe Wilson scrambled in a fourth and O’Flanagan completed her hat trick with a clever corner touch.
Sarah Hawkshaw got her first major tournament goal with a neat touch to Lena Tice’s disguised slap; it meant both outfield debutantes were on the mark this weekend with Bethany Barr opening the scoring against Malaysia.
O’Flanagan thumped in her fourth with nine minutes to go, the second time she has done so in green after a quarter against Kazakhstan in 2017.
Jindriksa Reichlova got one back but there was still time for Daly to round out the win with a neat touch to Mullan’s cross.
It finished off Ireland’s biggest win since a 10-0 success against Tuesday’s final group opponent Singapore in 2017.
On evidence thus far in Banbridge, they should cause few problems.
“We knew these were the two main games in this group and this one was probably the group decider,” O’Flanagan said. “We can’t underestimate Singapore and we will do our homework on them. For us, we focus on ourselves and today we really had that.”
A McFerran, R Upton, K Mullan, L Tice, G Pinder, B Barr, L Colvin, A O’Flanagan, Z Wilson, D Duke, A Meeke
S McCay, M Frazer, C Watkins, N Daly, H Matthews, S Hawkshaw, E Buckley
B Cechakova, K Lacina, J Reichlova, N Hajkova, A Koziskova, T Mejzlikova, V Novakova, A Lehovcova, A Kolarova, Y Decsyova, A Vorlova
L Duchkova, K Jelinkova, R Capouchova, N Babicka, M Hlavata, N Novakova
H Harrison (ENG), A Faias (POR)