World League 3: Irish anguish in Valencia

By Nigel Ringland in ValenciaBBC Sport NI
Agony for Ireland players in the penalty shoot-out against China
Agony for Ireland players in the penalty shoot-out against China

Sport, at the highest level, has the capacity to elevate the emotions.

The highs are exhilarating, but with the prizes on offer, the lows can be crushing, devastating, gut wrenching.

Here in Valencia the Ireland women's hockey team went from one extreme to another in a four-day period that ended with their Olympic qualification hopes quashed in the cruellest fashion possible.

Ireland entered World League 3 as the seventh ranked of the ten countries taking part. They should have finished fourth in their pool before a defeat in the quarter-finals by Argentina.

Then they would have battled the likes of South Africa and Spain for fifth place and a realistic shot of going to Rio, once the full qualification process played itself out over the next few months, with only three countries guaranteed to go to the Olympics from this tournament.

That's how it was supposed to go.

But Ireland defied their world ranking of 14th by beating South Africa (11th) and then last Tuesday stunned-fifth ranked USA, 2-0, to end up top of their pool.

Megan Frazer pays tribute to departing Ireland coach Darren Smith

That was the exhilarating high.

Results in the other section didn't go according to the rankings either and instead of getting Spain (15th) in the quarters they matched up with China (7th).

A win would have meant a top four place, a trip to the World League final and more importantly almost certainly sealed a place for the first time in the Olympics next year.

After conceding an early goal, Ireland dominated the rest of the game, forced 15 penalty corners that came to nothing but when they equalised in the third quarter they had the Chinese there for the taking.

With five minutes remaining Ireland's captain Megan Frazer thought she'd scored the winning goal.

The umpire gave it, then despite China having earlier lost their video referral, she bowed to their protests and decided to take a second look.

Yes, it hit an Irish foot, the right decision was made in the end but how it came about left a bit of a bitter taste. Six years ago Ireland would have won the game 2-1 but those where the days before video referral.

It didn't count and on the game went to penalty shots and when China missed for the second time, Ireland had a shot at making history. In fact having missed it once they had a second chance when it had to be retaken....but it just wouldn't go in.

In sudden death, China scored, won the game and left Ireland's women shocked and distraught.

This was the devastating low.

Irish players celebrate after Anna O'Flanagan scores against the USA
Irish players celebrate after Anna O'Flanagan scores against the USA

Now from being so close to going to Rio they had to beat the USA again to maintain any hopes of reaching the Olympics.

A 6-1 defeat doesn't come anywhere close to reflecting how Ireland played over the previous 10 days.

Now there were no words, just tears, the players left to their own thoughts and the consoling hugs of family and friends.

It's certainly a weird format of a competition where China win two games inside the regulation sixty minutes and end up going to the Olympics and Ireland win three and finish eighth.

But those are the harsh realities.

It will take time to get over this massive disappointment but this squad of players is young enough, talented enough and more importantly have the character to bounce back, push forward to the top 10 in the world and make the 2018 World Cup and then set about the task of making sure Tokyo 2020 becomes a reality.

Sport can be a cruel business sometimes - for the Irish women's hockey squad, the lows experienced this week will hopefully, eventually, make the highs all that more sweeter.