The Ireland women’s hockey team made a winning start to the three-test series with Italy on Thursday night as they defeated their fellow Olympic hopefuls 1-0 at Mossley.
It was the first time a senior international had been played on this side of the border since Scotland were the visitors to the same venue two years ago and the big crowd that turned up at the Glade certainly got their money’s worth.
Ireland left it late in a tight contest to secure the win as Nicci Daly’s winner came at the end of the third quarter of the game.
Italy were no push overs and indeed they won the penalty corner count 3-1 and could well have gone away with a share of the spoils.
Ireland edged the first quarter and Ards striker Chloe Brown set up debut girl Hayley Mulcahy early on but the Loreto player’s shot found the side netting.
In the 10th minute Kate Dillon’s effort went wide after she had been set up by UCD’s Emily Beatty.
Italy came out of the blocks strongly in the second period forcing two penalty corners, one of which was cleared off the line by Cliodhna Sargent.
But Daly grabbed the only goal of the game in third quarter stoppage time when she netted a rebound after Ulster’s Shirley McCay and Dillon had shots blocked.
Both teams are using the triple-header as part of the build up for the next stage of the Olympic qualifying process after they won their respective World league 2 tournaments.
Italy, like their hosts, have climbed up the world rankings - to 16th - two places lower than their hosts, but both will face much tougher opposition in Antwerp and Valencia in June.
Ireland coach Darren Smith will have been aiming for a clean sweep of wins in view of the differential in rankings so after last night’s win it’s a case of one down, two to go.
The teams have had many battles in the past and, to a degree, Italy have been something of a bogey team for Ireland, dating back almost a decade.
In 2008, a 2-0 win in Victoria, Canada ended Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the Olympics and then in 2013, in Smith’s first tournament in charge, a similar outcome in Valencia ended his team’s chances of progressing to the World Cup finals.
But with the two teams at separate qualifying tournaments ahead of the 2016 Rio Games, a series such as this between the sides made sense.
In the sides’ last competitive meeting, at Mori on the shores of Lake Garda in the summer of 2014, Ireland had a 3-1 victory en route to winning a Tri-Nations series also involving Wales.
So hopes are high that Smith’s team, captained by Ulster Elks’ midfielder Megan Frazer, can go on and and make it three out of three over the next few days though it will be a tough ask judging last night’s tense opener.
The teams meet again on Saturday and on Sunday with the action switching to Ulster University at Jordanstown which will be hosting senior women’s international hockey for the first time. (2pm)