It was a victory eleven years, eleven months and twenty days in the making. India started their hockey tournament in Rio with a tough fought 3-2 victory over Ireland today, their first in the Olympic Games since 2004. The build up had been testing. When VR Raghunath’s drag flick finally caught the board, and the sound echoed around the Olympic Hockey centre in Deodoro, the enormity and the exasperation of what had just happened was evident in his celebration.
It had taken the entirety of the first quarter and a little more to finally break David Harte’s resolve and his goal to take the long awaited lead in their opening hockey game at the Games. After the fireworks and the pomp of the opening ceremony, the opening hockey encounter for India started out with much more calm.
The two teams’ cautious start was justified. Ireland was playing its first Olympics since 1908, and India the favourites for the encounter, hadn’t won an opener in 16 years. It was India though who were dominant throughout the early exchanges. Harte’s heroics were crucial to denying Nikkin Thimmaiah and SK Uthappa two gloriously created chances in the first quarter.
With the seconds ticking down, and the hooter imminent, it was Raghunath on the right wing, who started the process which would win them their first PC. A quick cross and Ramandeep Singh and Uthappa’s presence in the circle was enough for the defensive lapse that led to the first PC. The first was Raghunath’s, cleared off the line, and off the rebound, Ramandeep saw a superb shot saved by Harte.
From the long corner Sardar Singh’s guile won them another. Rupinder Pal Singh’s effort was blocked away illegally, and India had another. This time off the foot of Kyle Good. The goal was coming that was evident. Raghu’s flick flew unerringly into the bottom corner, and India’s campaign was underway. The lead allowed India to drift into their natural counter-attacking game in the second quarter. And it was almost immediately effective. A turnover off an Irish attack and a long ball from the back had Ireland’s defence split open. Nikkin brought the ball down perfectly but Harte did enough to make him pull his shot off target.
Soon enough Ireland had a couple of PCs of their own, and seemed to have scored off the first, only for the referee to deny them because of an illegal trap in the circle. India made no such mistake from their first PC of the second period, Rupinder Pal Singh’s 27th minute shot flying past a host of charging Ireland defenders and Harte into the top corner to double India’s lead as they went into half time. Post halftime, both teams settled down into a predictable pattern of play as Ireland who never looked out of contention and pushed forward to reduce the deficit to get back into the game.
They had their goal at the end of the quarter off a PC in the 45th minute by John Jermyn. India wrested back that two goal cushion though, as Rupinder Pal scored his second in the 49th minute off another smartly won PC to turn the screw on the game. If that goal was supposed to calm Indian nerves and diminish Irish hope, the players had other ideas. Sreejesh, who had till now been called into action cursorily, was suddenly at the centre of it all, as Ireland pushed forward in numbers and won a flurry of penalty corners.
The skipper kept out the first attempts, direct flicks without variation, and went better denyng them off a rebound soon after. The pressure though soon told on the defence as a variation by Conor Harte brought Ireland their second goal, and the game back to life. In the last four minutes, India’s senior players took it upon them to steer the game clear. Sardar Singh at the fulcrum, pushing the ball into corners, and drawing players and time away. Ireland had one final push though, a penalty corner that went high and wide, as India closed the game out to record the victory. The Indian men’s hockey team next play defending champions Germany on August 8 at 7.30 p.m. IST.