Grangetown Netball Club made a whistle-stop visit to the Republic of Ireland yesterday to take on Northern Ireland under 21s and the full Irish side at Tallaght Leisure Centre in Dublin.
It was a chance for members of Head Coach Gel Williams’ Premier League squad to gain some valuable match practice in the build-up to the new season, which starts on September 27; and also a wonderful opportunity for some of the club’s talented teenagers to have the experience of playing against international opposition.
The Northern Ireland elite squad was ranked number twelve in the world prior to the recent World Championships, so their under 21 side was always likely to provide a stern test for Grangetown. The Northern Ireland coaching team had brought a large group of seventeen to Dublin, and would be using the weekend’s fixtures to help finalise their squad for October’s European Championships, which are being held in Aberdeen.
The opening exchanges were closely-fought, with both defences working hard to force mistakes. Jess Doyle controlled play well from the centre of the court and Katie Sargent’s fast, agile movement and accurate passing at wing attack were features of the first quarter, at the end of which Northern Ireland held a slender one-goal advantage.
Without a senior shooter, fifteen year-old Tasha Grylls spearheaded the attack, and with the Super League experience of Ria Small helping to create most of the scoring opportunities, the teenager responded with a number of impressive long-range goals.
Northern Ireland extended their lead to three by half time, although two of those goals came in the final thirty seconds of the quarter. For their part, Grangetown centre Jess Doyle continued to impress and the team displayed some wonderful skill in both attack and defence, including one sublime retrieval from an airborne Ria Small, to retain possession when the ball had seemingly bounced out of court.
Jenny Mrozik and Vicky Rees, Grangetown’s regular Premier League defensive pairing produced a number of rebounds and interceptions to turn over possession, but the Northern Ireland side maintained pressure on the passer and Grangetown struggled to create clear openings.
In the third quarter however, Grangetown stepped up a gear and produced a tremendous fifteen minutes of netball. Having played the second quarter at centre, fifteen year-old Hannah Raine was moved to wing attack and showed why she is one of the club’s most highly-regarded juniors. An outstanding natural athlete with excellent hands and vision, Hannah helped to set up Tasha Grylls on several occasions, and the understanding between the pair was obvious as Tasha scored nine goals to bring the scores level at 22-22.
The fourth of the youngsters, Annike Jinadu, was introduced at wing defence in the third quarter. She was forced to play out of position with Jenny Mrozik and Katie Walton defending inside the circle, but Annike worked particularly hard and acquitted herself extremely well during that period, helping restrict a strong under 21 international squad to just six goals.
Grangetown scored the first three goals of the final quarter and an upset result suddenly appeared a real possibility, however Northern Ireland battled back thanks to a combination of defensive pressure, more accurate shooting and one outrageous piece of luck when a ball was slapped backwards into play by one of their attackers, and flew straight into the grateful arms of a team mate standing right underneath the post. That goal brought the scores level once again, and despite the Grangetown defence securing a couple more late rebounds, the all-important goals did not materialise and Northern Ireland held on to earn a 27-29 victory in what had been an excellent game of netball.
The man of the match was Tasha Grylls, who scored all except one of Grangetown’s goals. Purposely played as a lone shooter, supported by Premier League players at goal attack, Tasha took on shots from all parts of the circle; and converted a more than acceptable percentage. As well as her shooting skills, she already possesses a steely determination and an apparent ability to ignore pressure, both of which are great attributes for someone so young.
After a break of less than three hours, Grangetown were back on court, this time to face the full Republic of Ireland side, which is currently ranked no.26 in the world. The Irish squad had even less time to recover, having defeated the Hull Chevrons immediately prior to taking on Grangetown.
The game could hardly have got off to a worse start for the Teesside-based club as Ireland raced into a 1-9 lead. They looked well-organised during a first quarter that was dominated as much by the umpire’s whistle as by Ireland’s defensive qualities and consistent shooting.
The feature of the first quarter from Grangetown’s perspective was a long-range goal from stand-in shooter Ria Small, but at the end of the fifteen minutes, Ireland led 3-11. That advantage was extended to 8-21 by half-time, but despite the scoreline, Grangetown goal keeper Katie Walton was having an excellent game, getting hands to Irish passes and managing to gather a number of rebounds.
After playing six full quarters, Tasha Grylls was replaced and Grangetown’s new shooting partnership was Vicky Rees and Jenny Mrozik, more normally seen at the opposite end of the court. Both scored during a third period that Grangetown only lost by two goals, with the scoreboard now reading 18-33.
Katie Sargent and Annike Jinadu were on court at the end of the game and both did well during those final fifteen minutes; but with Irish captain Níamh Murphy dictating the pace of the game and fatigue clearly setting in amongst the Grangetown players, the hosts ran out comfortable and worthy winners by 27-45.
The stand out player on court was the Ireland goal keeper Genevieve Slater, who seemed to be able to pick off passes and rebounds almost at will, but it was her counterpart Katie Walton who was Grangetown’s man of the match.
To play two games in a matter of hours straight after a lengthy bus journey and flight is an incredibly tough challenge, and it was perhaps unsurprising that the pace and intensity that Grangetown demonstrated against Northern Ireland under 21s could not be maintained against Joan Young’s Republic of Ireland side. That said the time on court in proper match conditions can only benefit club captain Vicky Rees and the members of her Premier League squad; and Gel Williams will have taken a lot of positives not only from the performances of her elite players, but perhaps equally encouragingly, from the excellent contributions made by the four teenagers, all of whom look to have exciting futures ahead of them.