Rio Olympics: Rupinder Pal Singh struck twice as drag-flickers ruled the roost to help India register a fighting 3-2 win over Ireland in their opening match of the men’s hockey competition at the Olympic Hockey Centre on Saturday. Head coach Roelant Oltmans would've heaved a sigh of relief, for this victory is bound to give some confidence and momentum for the tougher challenges that are staring at the team ahead.
It was the two experienced Indian dragflickers who ensured a winning start to the team. VR Raghunath (15th minute) and Rupinderpal Singh (27th, 49th) converted three out of seven penalty corners India earned in the match to secure their first win in an opening clash at the Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Games.
Ireland gave India a run for its money, especially in the second half, finding the net twice through Jermyn John (45th) and Conor Harte (56th). Going by world rankings, No.5 India was the favourite in the Pool-B encounter against Ireland, the World No.12, and the eight-time gold-medallist started on expected lines by dominating the first two quarters.
From the word go, the Indians started on the attack, putting pressure on the Ireland citadel with relentless raids. The Irish, on the other hand, were happy to fall back and defend in numbers, depending mainly on counter-attacks to stun their opponents. India’s domination can be gauged from the fact that they earned as many as six penalty corners in the first two quarters as against Ireland’s two.
India’s first real scoring chance came in the last minute of the first quarter when it earned its first penalty corner, but the variation did not work, and from the resultant build-up Ramandeep Singh’s effort was saved an alert by David Harte in front of the Irish goal. Then, just a second from the end of the first quarter, India earned three more back-to-back penalty corners, the last of which was ably converted by Raghunath, with a powerful low flick to the right of the Irish goalkeeper.
Seven minutes into the second quarter, Ireland had its first scoring chance securing a penalty corner, and John scored from the opportunity but the goal was disallowed as the push was not stopped properly. Ireland earned another short corner three minutes later, but the try went wide.
India then secured its fifth penalty corner in the 27th minute, which was beautifully converted by Rupinder Pal Singh. The Indians managed to get another penalty corner in the final minute of the second quarter but wasted the opportunity and went into the breather with a two-goal cushion.
After the change of ends, Ireland looked a completely different side, pressing the Indian defence hard in search of goals. The Irish, featuring in hockey at the Olympics after 108 years, secured two penalty corners in a span of two minutes, and John scored his first international goal from the second opportunity to reduce the margin to 2-1.
India then earned another set piece in the final quarter which was powerfully struck home by Rupinder, registering his second and the team’s third goal. But Ireland exerted continuous pressure thereafter, managing to break the India defence in the final 10 minutes.
Under pressure, the Indian defence looked out of sorts and conceded four penalty corners, the third of which resulted in Ireland’s second goal. Harte scored from Ireland’s seventh penalty corner after the initial effort was saved by P.R. Sreejesh.
Three minutes from time, Ireland earned another penalty corner, but luckily for India the shot went wide. India will next play reigning Olympic champion Germany on August 8. Earlier in Pool B, Argentina held London Olympics silver medallist Netherlands to a 3-3 draw.