The recent Nation’s Cup in Singapore brought together six countries from five continents for what is one of netball’s most important annual events. Competitions involving teams ranked outside the world’s elite are vital for the growth and development of the sport and for Ireland, the tournament represented a wonderful opportunity to build on May’s successful Netball Europe Open and challenge five squads all ranked between six and ten places above them.
Such are the vagaries of availability and injury that only six of those who boarded the plane to the Far East had been part of the squad in Newcastle upon Tyne just four months earlier, so for the world’s no.25, the first priority was to gel quickly as a unit before the daily on-court tests that would be respectively provided by Singapore (no.17 in the world), Canada (18), Botswana (19), Zambia (16) and Papua New Guinea (15).
Throughout their previous participation in the Nation’s Cup, Ireland had only ever defeated one country–the USA–but after losing their opening fixture to the hosts, the “Girls in Green” doubled that total by inflicting a heavy defeat on Canada. This would be their only success in the group stages, but it would not be their best performance….
Two subsequent losses followed to eventual champions Zambia and fellow African nation Botswana (the latter by just seven goals in a well-contested game), but in their final pool match, Ireland produced arguably their finest ever competitive performance in a memorable encounter with Papua New Guinea. The final victory margin was just two goals in favour of the South Sea Islanders, but the way in which Ireland reduced a third quarter deficit to almost claim a remarkable win was as thrilling as it was ultimately heart-breaking.
Botswana’s outstanding effort against Zambia (43-46) was the only other match in the whole tournament that came even close to matching such drama; and initial Irish disappointment will surely be superseded by pride in a fine performance and a realisation of just what this result could mean for what currently remains a minority sport in Dublin and around the Republic.
Ultimately, one win from five games earned Ireland a 5th/6th place play-off against Canada, and fifth spot was assured with another emphatic success—this time by 47-18.
Despite being without a number of influential regular players, and even with injuries sustained during the tournament, Ireland were competitive for long periods in every game and coach Joan Young will have learned a lot about the areas where improvement is required to turn sizeable defeats into narrow ones… and narrow defeats into victories.
Aspects such as maintaining intensity across all four quarters, retaining clarity of thought when fatigued, and sustaining shooting accuracy under pressure are crucial—and also very hard to achieve; but these girls are fit, quick, strong, skilled and blessed with the kind of unshakable determination that genuinely makes you believe that almost anything is possible.
But the most exciting potential legacy from this essentially self-funded trip (because amazingly, netball in Ireland receives no central funding or major sponsorship) would be that youngsters back in Ireland will have seen what was achieved by this new squad, and decide that they want to be part of netball’s future.
It would certainly be nice to think that the 2016 Nation’s Cup, and the performance against Papua New Guinea in particular, ultimately becomes a turning point, or pivotal moment in Ireland netball’s development, but whatever the future holds, these twelve athletes, along with the fantastic Joan Young, deserve so much credit for all their effort and achievement… quite simply, they were brilliant: Ali Higginbotham, Gen Slater, Kate Bermingham, Fran Duffy, Trish Fanning, Melanie Ingram, Fiona Morrissey, Kirsty Owens, Nicky Stevenson-Potter, Christina Tuataga, Katie Walton, Keiryn Williams.
Richard... Jack of some trades... you can guess the rest