Ireland came unstuck in their second men’s Hockey World League Semi-Final tie as they were beaten 6-2 by Olympic silver medalists Belgium in Johannesburg.
Craig Fulton’s side had begun the competition with an excellent 2-0 result against South Africa and were looking to build on that but came a cropper against one of the tournament’s fancied sides, inflicting just a second defeat in 18 games for Ireland in 2017.
The green machine started well, winning a corner in the third minute from which Shane O’Donoghue drew a good stop from Vincent Vanasch. Ireland went in front before the first quarter was out when Stu Loughrey burst down the right wing and fed Jeremy Duncan who beat a couple of players before laying off to the overlapping Loughrey.
His touch found Stephen Cole in mid-circle to sweep in his first Irish international goal in his 38th cap.
Belgium, though, were showing a verve and tenacity in their play and were forcing turnovers high up the pitch at key moments. They got level when a long overhead out of defence found Simon Gougnard at the top of the circle and he smashed in a top shot.
Two minutes later, another slick move was turned in by Cedric Charlier. Tom Boon scored the first of his hat trick of drag-flicks before half-time to make it 3-1.
David Harte had made some great saves in the opening period and produced his best with a brave block on Charlier, denying the chance with his face from close range. He also just about recovered to make a follow-up save but looked shaken for the experience.
A penalty stroke followed soon after from Loick Luypaert to make it 4-1 after John Jackson’s body blocked a shot on the line.
Boon then added another couple of drag-flicks either side of the third quarter break for 6-1.
Ireland kept fighting and Alan Sothern pulled a goal back with a beautiful upright reverse-stick shot from Matthew Nelson’s assist but Belgium were already well over the line.
“Belgium are a good team and have got a lot of power in a lot of areas,” Fulton conceded afterwards. “Their corners are a strength so when you give away soft ones, it does hurt you. We had a good few phases but couldn’t sustain it for longer periods.”
Despite the loss, Ireland are next in action against Egypt on Thursday where a win will assure Ireland of a place in the quarter-finals and a big step toward securing a 2018 World Cup ticket.
“It’s about the next game and there are some areas to improve on but I am really looking forward to the next phase,” Fulton added.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, the Irish women face Poland at 1pm (Irish time) with a win ensuring they advance to the quarter-finals after their pair of draws to date.
The game – along with every other Hockey World League Semi-Final tie – will be broadcast live on BT Sport.
Ireland: D Harte, J Jackson, J Bell, C Cargo, A Sothern, E Magee, S O’Donoghue, J McKee, C Harte, S Loughrey, S Cole
Subs: M Bell, M Nelson, N Glassey, S Murray, P Gleghorne, J Duncan, J Carr
Belgium: V Vanasch, A van Doren, S Dockier, A Keusters, A Meurmans, E Stockbroekx, A Hendrickx, T Briels, F Denayer, S Gougnard, L Luypaert
Subs: C Charlier, G Boccard, N de Kerpel,A de Sloover, T Boon, A Gucasoff
Umpires: G Hundley (USA), R Prasad (IND)