Three wins in four gruelling days has guaranteed that Ireland will record their highest ever placing at Singapore’s annual Nations Cup netball tournament.
This is the fifth time that Ireland have sent a squad over to Asia, finishing sixth out of the six competing nations in 2012 and 2014, and fifth in 2013 and 2016. Victories over the USA in 2013 and Canada (twice) last year had been Ireland’s only previous successes in what is both a competitive and hugely important event; but how those fortunes have changed over the past few days.
In the absence of Niamh Murphy, the twelve-strong Ireland squad is captained by Genevieve Slater, who has been an integral part of the international set-up for a number of years. Gen was the team’s ‘Player of the Tournament’ in both 2012 and 2013; she’s a strong leader on court, and her defensive partnership with Grangetown team mate Katie Walton has certainly been a feature of the last four days.
Niamh herself was named ‘Player of the Tournament’ in 2014, but last year’s recipient Kirsty Owens is with the squad in Singapore; she’s a superb all-round athlete and the regular centre in Joan Young’s starting seven.
I wrote about the wins over Singapore and Malaysia earlier in the week (the former being one of my highlights of the entire sporting year), and although the Cook Islands halted Ireland’s run of victories, the squad quickly returned to winning ways with a comprehensive defeat of Hong Kong, a side currently ranked just two places below Ireland.
One interesting aside from that loss, is that the opposition shooter Alanna Smith is the reigning Miss Cook Islands. She was one of the 118 entrants in Miss World 2017, and only missed out on a place in the final forty, when she came second out of twenty-three contestants in a pre-pageant “sports challenge”…
The winner of the overall title was Miss India Manushi Chhillar - undeniably pretty, but Gen would have her for breakfast on a netball court.
Anyway, back in Singapore, this week’s performances and results demonstrate just how much can be achieved by combining skill and ability with sheer hard work, dedication and determination. Remember that netball in Ireland is a non-funded minority sport, yet these girls train and practice like any other elite athlete, whilst still having to hold down full-time jobs.
They might never be in the same league as Australia, New Zealand and England; but so what?! Given all the obstacles they have to overcome, the young women who represent Ireland are every bit as inspiring as any of the more recognisable names at the pinnacle of the sport.
Tomorrow is a much-needed rest day, but on Friday (9am UK time), the girls take on Swaziland, the other side with three victories thus far. It’s a huge game that will be streamed live on Netball Singapore’s Facebook page, so if you’ve got an hour or so to spare, why not spend it watching and cheering on Ireland?
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?
My immediate reaction when I saw the shortlist of twelve nominations for Sports Personality of the Year was that it was fairly uninspiring. Maybe we were spoilt for choice last year given the number of amazing performances in Rio; or maybe it just hasn’t been a vintage twelve months for British sport?
What I think is fantastic however, is the fact that a third of the nominees are female, there is a para-athlete on the list, and several “minority” sports are also represented.
Sadly, irrespective of how much they have accomplished, the likes of Elise Christie and Bianca Walkden cannot win the main prize, simply because there are higher-profile athletes whose names alone carry enough weight to pretty much guarantee a place in the top three. I’m not saying that’s right by the way…
The bookmakers rarely get things wrong, and Anthony Joshua is a massive odds-on favourite to lift the trophy, but my choice would be very different and even though my opinion is worth next to nothing, I’m going to give you my brief assessment (in reverse order) anyway.
12: Jonathan Rea
Apparently he’s a really good motorcycle racer, but I’ve never heard of him. Not his fault; I’m sure he’s a great bloke, but you can’t vote for someone you’ve never heard of.
11 Harry Kane
If he scores the goal that wins England the World Cup in Russia, then he would win next year’s trophy by a mile. He’s a tremendous striker, but he won’t score the winning goal in the World Cup final, because England will long since have been dumped out of the competition.
10: Johanna Konta
One of three overseas-born nominees on the list; she progressed all the way to the semi-final of Wimbledon, before realising that she was now British and promptly losing.
9: Chris Froome
Surely the best-ever Kenyan cyclist … but doesn’t inspire me at all.
8: Lewis Hamilton
Will surely finish in the top three, at which point I will question the definition of “personality”.
7: Elise Christie
It’s not the fact that she won a couple of short-track world titles that’s impressive; it’s the fact she was able to bounce back from a triple disqualification at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. To have that strength of character is so inspiring.
6: Jonnie Peacock
Seems a really decent bloke; he’s a fine athlete and real standard-bearer for disability sport. And the lad can dance too…
5: Bianca Walkden
Dual world champion who, along with Jade Jones, has undoubtedly raised the profile of taekwondo, Bianca has apparently lost just once since 2016 - a great record, although in fairness I haven’t lost a taekwondo contest ever. It’s also a little known fact that the sport was the inspiration for the song: “If you kick me in the head, that’s taekwondo kwondo kwondo…”
4: Anthony Joshua
He comes across really well outside the ring, he’s a really imposing physical specimen, and it will be interesting to watch how his career develops now that he holds two versions of the World Heavyweight title.
3: Mo Farah
Quite simply one of the world’s greatest-ever athletes; he also seems a genuinely personable man away from the track. To win the 10,000m gold at the World Championships despite falling twice just about summed up his incredible determination and resilience.
2: Adam Peaty
His achievements in the 50m and 100m breaststroke are truly staggering. He has the ten fastest recorded times in history over 100m and also broke the 50m world record twice … in a day. Even my six lengths award from 1972 pales in comparison.
1: Anya Shrubsole
The women’s World Cup cricket final produced arguably the year’s most enthralling sporting drama. In just 19 deliveries, Anya took five Indian wickets to turn almost certain defeat into a quite glorious victory; and proved (if any proof was needed) just how high the levels of skill and excitement are within elite women’s sport.