A 52nd minute penalty was enough to see Australia edge past the Republic of Ireland in a competitive World Cup opener. Steph Catley converted to the delight of the 75,000 watching fans as the Matildas achieved a valuable opening day win.
“We knew that this was going to be a very tough opening game,” Tony Gustavsson remarked. “We’ve seen Ireland against top teams before. They’re extremely difficult to break down. They are really committed in their defending actions. They are very physical. They’re dangerous in transition and probably one of the tournament’s best teams in attacking set plays.”
There was a marked sense of relief on the Australia manager’s face as his side held strong against some late pressure from the Irish. “This was a mental game in a lot of senses,” he said. “We had five World Cup debutants out there tonight… I’ve always said it takes 23 in 23. Tonight, they proved that they are a team that is ready to play no matter what.”
It was far from a plain sailing evening for the Matildas, who had to deal with problems even before the first whistle. There was an audible gasp that rippled around the media centre when, 90 minutes before kick-off, it was revealed that Sam Kerr was out. Their talismanic captain had picked up a calf injury in training the day, ruling her out of at least the first two games. For a side who, despite their wealth of talent, build their game around their centre forward, it was quite a “curveball” as Gustavsson put it. In contrast, the Irish were boosted by the return to fitness of Denise O’Sullivan and Vera Pauw could name a full-strength line-up.
For anyone that was still in doubt, it was clear from the start that the Republic of Ireland were not there purely to take part. It may be a historic first tournament for Pauw’s side but they did not let the lights, noise and large crowd distract them from the task in hand. They played with as much gusto as they, and their noisy pocket of fans, had belted out the anthem.
The game plan was played almost to perfection in the first half as they succeeded in frustrating the Matildas and limiting their chances in front of goal. Courtnee Vine and Caitlin Foord sparkled in moments but all to often they came up the wall of the Irish back three who were more than willing to put their bodies on the line for the cause. Their best opportunities came from corners with Hayley Raso coming closest, diverting a header narrowly wide at the back post.
Ireland themselves had opportunities on the counter with Kyra Carusa full of running despite being fairly isolated up front. Their tenacity in the middle showed with Ruesha Littlejohn putting in a solid performance while the quality of Sinead Farrelly shone through. Getting to half-time with a clean sheet would have been a key milestone and Pauw must have felt pretty satisfied as they returned to the dressing room.
Australia stepped their energy up a notch in the five minutes after they returned to the field and began to push Ireland further back towards their own box. They capitalised on the pressure when Sheva somewhat clumsily brought down Raso in the box. Referee Edina Alves Batista was convinced and immediately pointed to the spot. Steph Catley, captain for the evening, stepped up with the expectation of a nation on her shoulders but unflinchingly dispatched the penalty before wheeling away, deafened by the roar of the crowd.
“It was absolutely electric,” Raso said post match. “We just all ran to Steph but she was off. She said to me after the game, “I know why you guys like being strikers. It was such a special feeling.”
They could have put the game to bed minutes later when Mary Fowler was allowed to surge through but the young star turned her shot over the bar. From there, it looked like the Matildas were going to kick on but actually the opposite happened. Ireland dug in, regrouped and decided to take the game to the hosts, boosted by the fresh legs of Abbie Larkin and Lucy Quinn. They looked particularly potent from set pieces and Katie McCabe’s corner deliveries caused the Australian defence some consternation. Denise O’Sullivan turned a half-volley over the bar before Heather Payne scuffed a shot from inside the box and McCabe just could not release the ball from under her feet.
With Australia opting to shut up shop at the back, Pauw rolled the dice sending Louise Quinn forward. It was a move that perhaps could have happened a little earlier but added numbers to the Irish attack. It meant they were slightly less solid at the back and Fahey bravely denied Katrina Gorry, taking a powerful shot front on.
In a game of inches, in the end, it just was not to be for Ireland as Louise Quinn headed wide with the final effort of the game. “I’m really proud,” Pauw said of her team. “The game plan worked. They couldn’t do what they wanted to do. When we had to go further forward the changes and tactical approach worked too. Until the last second, we have been able to put them under pressure… It was the first time on this stage and it didn’t look like that that was really affecting them.”
It was a performance that will have filled her team with confidence ahead of another tough test against Canada in Perth on Wednesday. For Australia, however, the three points were all that mattered as they kicked off their home tournament. Anything but a win would have piled the pressure on the side. “It was a tough game, a very physical battle,” Raso reflected. “But we knew that coming into the game. It was about sticking to our plan, staying calm and composed and making sure we broke them down. We got the job done.” The hosts now move on to face Nigeria in Brisbane on Thursday, knowing that a result will put them in the driving seat for qualification.
Australia (4-4-2): Mackenzie Arnold; Ellie Carpenter, Clare Hunt, Alanna Kennedy, Steph Catley; Hayley Raso, Katrina Gorry, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Cortnee Vine; Caitlin Foord, Mary Fowler
Subs: Lydia Williams, Courtney Nevin, Aivi Luik, Clare Polkinghorne, Clare Wheeler, Alex Chidiac, Emily van Egmond, Tegan Micah, Tameka Yallop, Kyah Siomn, Sam Kerr, Charlotte Grant
Republic of Ireland (3-4-3): Courtney Brosnan; Niamh Fahey, Louise Quinn, Megan Connolly; Heather Payne, Ruesha Littlejohn, Denise O’Sullivan, Katie McCabe; Sinead Farrelly, Kyra Carusa, Marissa Sheva
Subs: Claire O’Riordan; Chloe Mustaki, Diane Caldwell, Amber Barrett, Lily Agg, Áine O’Gorman, Lucy Quinn, Grace Moloney, Abbie Larkin, Ciara Grant, Izzy Atkinson, Megan Walsh
Referee: Edina Alves Batista