Ireland 4 (Michelle Harvey 2, Nikki Evans 2) Belgium 0 A four-star second half performance saw Ireland end their Belgian hoodoo in fine fashion at the National Hockey Stadium as Nikki Evans and Michelle Harvey (pictured, right) both scored twice.
It ended the country’s ten game losing streak in the best possible manner as a number of players made serious cases for inclusion in Gene Muller’s centralised panel.
With Emma Clarke not arriving in Dublin until Saturday, just seven of the side in the match day 16 had more than ten caps to their name with Jean McDonnell, Miriam Crowley (below, left), Anna O’Flanagan and teenagers Niamh Atchler and Chloe Watkins all playing their first senior internationals on home soil.
Indeed, they were full value for the result, notching up 16 shots in the game, testing the visiting goalkeeper Elizabeth Achten from start to finish in a one-sided affair.
Watkins went close inside three minutes with a thumping reverse which Achten did well to bat away after Lizzie Colvin’s early inroads. It was the sole effort of a stop-start opening quarter, punctuated further by an injury to umpire Moira Flahive – standing in her first international – which caused a brief delay.
The resumption, though, saw Ireland tear into the game. During this period, Watkins would test the goalkeeper further still with another rasping reverse after the impressive Crowley had laid into her path. The UCC woman had a reverse-sweep palmed away while McDonnell skewed wide.
As it was, not taking one of the first half chances proved frustrating as two would-be corners were waved to play on and the ensuing chances went a begging with Crowley’s push across goal and Nicci Daly’s baseline run coming to nought.
Shirley McCay took a two-minute suspension for dissent on the second occasion just before half-time.
Ireland though they had taken the lead soon after the interval when McDonnell smashed the ball into the bottom corner. The shot was well outside the circle but was initially awarded before a consultation saw the right decision reached.
For good measure, McDonnell’s next crash ball hit the post from 20 metres out but it was a brief respite for the Belgian defence who finally succumbed in the 40th minute.
Anna O’Flanagan snuck in to win a penalty corner and Harvey whipped home low and true for 1-0.
Achten denied Evans’ volley and Daly’s punch shot in the immediate aftermath with a brilliant double save but the second was only three minutes in coming. Evans mazily raced down the right wing and her neat exchange with Crowley opened a comfortable chance to slot the second and Ireland were on easy street.
In a flurry of action, Evans, Colvin and, captain for the day, Alex Speers all went close before Belgium belatedly showed some attacking flair with Jill Boon striking her side’s first shot in anger in the 50th minute.
It was a rare break-out and Ireland sealed the win in the 62nd minute. This time Evans needed no help – though Nicci Daly provided a fine decoy run – switching her focus to the left-wing where she burned past Julie Scraeyen 25 metres out and easily evaded Achten to roll home her second international goal.
Harvey dragged home her second and Ireland’s fourth on the final hooter to complete a fine win. The sides meet again on today at 4pm and on Sunday at 12pm in which Clarke will return to play in her 99th international fixture and will don the captain’s armband.
Ireland: L Healy, M Harvey, C Sargent, C Watkins, S McCay, A Speers (capt), A O’Flynn, S McCarthy, L Colvin, N Evans, N Daly Subs: J McDonnell, N Atcheler, M Crowley, K McConnell, A O’Flanagan
Belgium: E Achten, M Vouche, A Raes, V Vermeersch, L Danhaive, G Valcke, E Sinia, C Himpe, B Nelen, J Boon, L Delmulle Subs: J Jouret, O Bouche, C Guisset, J Scraeyen, H Delmee
* A couple more pics from the game can be seen here