It’s been a fantastic start to the Nations Cup tournament in Singapore for the Ireland netball squad, who have won their opening two fixtures. The annual tournament brings together six countries, usually with world rankings somewhere around the late teens or early twenties, and it’s a great opportunity for those involved to test themselves in a hugely competitive arena.
This year’s participants (in order of world ranking) are Singapore (19), Malaysia (20), Ireland (22), Hong Kong (24), Swaziland (30) and the Cook Islands, who have not yet played the requisite eight games to receive a formal rating.
If memory serves me right, Ireland had only ever previously beaten two countries in the Nations Cup, Canada (twice last year) and the USA; so the 2017 competition already promises to be Ireland’s most successful to date.
Yesterday’s game saw Ireland take on the host nation Singapore in the tournament’s opening fixture, in front of a large and noisy home crowd. In 2016, Ireland had been comfortably beaten by their higher-ranked opponents, but this latest encounter was a much closer affair. With two minutes remaining, the hosts held a three-goal lead, and hard as Genevieve Slater and her players had fought, it looked like they might come up just short.
However those final 120 seconds produced sporting drama of the highest order; Ireland scored three quick goals, including one against a Singapore centre pass and with less than a minute remaining, the scores were level; but Singapore had possession…
The hosts moved the ball down court, but wing defence Kate Bermingham somehow got an arm in the way of a pass across the circle; she managed to retrieve the loose ball, and play moved swiftly to the opposite end of the court. One superb pass through the defence found Jan Hynes free under the net. Jan isn’t one for setting herself when she shoots, and despite what must have been intense pressure, she simply popped the ball into the net and jumped into the air in delight.
There were six seconds left on the clock; it was Ireland’s centre pass and moments later, the hooter sounded and the celebrations could begin.
Last year, Ireland had produced a stirring final quarter comeback to nearly overhaul a Papua New Guinea side ranked ten places above them. It was a memorable performance, but however close they came to upsetting the odds, the record books will always show the result as a loss. Yesterday, I believe the squad came of age. They coped with the atmosphere, the expectation of a partisan crowd, the disappointment of a poor third period … and still had the skill, the strength and the character to prevail.
I might even have wiped away a stray tear. The girls were just brilliant.
It’s not always easy to play another game so soon after experiencing such a massive high; and Ireland looked a bit flat in the opening quarter of this morning’s game with Malaysia. However, from being well adrift at quarter time, Ireland’s defensive duo (the Grangetown pairing of Katie Walton and Gen Slater) began to dominate. The team started to respect turnover possession, and as confidence grew, so the deficit was overturned, and a three-goal interval advantage was extended to 14 by the final hooter.
To have won twice in two days is a notable achievement, made even better because the victories both came against higher-rated sides. That said there is still an awful lot of work to do; Hong Kong and Swaziland cannot be taken for granted, and the unranked Cook Islands hammered Malaysia in their opening match and could be the best side that Ireland will face.
As far as coach Joan Young and the players are concerned, maybe the time for reflection will come in a few days when the tournament is over and the performances can be properly assessed; but now seems a good time to highlight just how far this squad has progressed, how well they are playing, that their games are being streamed live on the Netball Singapore Facebook page; and everything the girls have achieved and are achieving has come on the back of no major funding.
This is a special group of athletes; it’s a great sporting story. Why not get involved and watch the next few chapters being written?