Just under two years ago, I wrote about how the Ireland Netball squad had moved up one place in the world rankings from 26 to 25. Over the intervening months, that climb has continued, and now, all the hard work on court and behind the scenes has seen the Ireland squad break into the top twenty for the first time in its history.
It is hard to put into words just what an amazing achievement this is. Netball in Ireland is a minority sport, that is not routinely played in schools (certainly not outside Dublin), and everything the girls have accomplished has been without any central funding or significant sponsorship.
So basically, whenever Ireland travel to take part in the Nations Cup in Singapore, or the annual Euros, the players actually pay for the privilege of representing their country. The commitment extends way beyond the tournaments though – the training, the fitness, the nutrition, the dedication, the determination … all done against the backdrop of full time work, or study, and occasionally even parenthood.
Of course I am biased. I follow teams in a few sports, but this is a very special group of athletes, and the fact that two of them (Katie Walton and Genevieve Slater) are about to taste National Prem 1 for the first time with their club side, Grangetown, adds a strong sense of local pride to what has been achieved across the Irish Sea.
A lot of recent netball coverage has centred on the England Roses, and quite rightly so following their dramatic gold medal performance in the Commonwealth Games; Ireland reaching the top twenty might not make the headlines, but in its own way, this is every bit as inspiring a story … and I can’t wait for the next chapter.