Securing qualification for next August’s World Cup is Northern Ireland’s top priority at the European Netball Championships, which start in Cardiff on Friday.
This year’s tournament doubles up as the regional qualifier for Australia 2015 with Northern Ireland, Scotland and hosts Wales effectively competing for the two places available.
With England qualifying automatically due to their top four world ranking, they are sitting out this year’s Euros with the Republic of Ireland taking their place in the top section.
The Republic, who meet their neighbours on Saturday, have been bolstered by an influx of Aussie talent but aren’t considered likely to pose a significant threat to the other three teams.
So a win in their opening game against a resurgent Scotland tonight would effectively clinch Northern Ireland’s passage to Oz after which they could build towards a Sunday showdown with current champions Wales.
Ironically, Northern Ireland haven’t lost to Scotland since they were whitewashed at the last European Championships to be held in Cardiff four years ago but the tartan team will be dangerous opponents.
Their impressive recent results, including a Test series success against Trinidad, suggest the massive investment in Scottish netball as Commonwealth hosts is finally delivering dividends.
However, Northern Ireland have never been better prepared for a tournament after a season featuring a greatly expanded international fixture list.
As well as hosting the inaugural International Festival at Antrim Forum last November, they have had productive tours to the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
Coach Kate Carpenter has been boosted by three of her top players, skipper Hannah Willis, her predecessor Gemma Gibney and vice-captain Noleen Lennon, coming through fitness tests at the start of the week.
Experienced centre Caroline O’Hanlon and defender Fionnuala Toner return after missing the tour to Fiji due to exam commitments, meaning Northern Ireland are at full strength.
Like Carpenter, O’Hanlon acknowledges that, with World Cup qualification at stake, this tournament is even more important to the future of Northern Ireland netball than this summer’s showcase Commonwealth Games.
“There’s huge expectations on the outcome of this weekend for Northern Ireland needs to be at all the major events, but we’re well prepared and see this as a winnable event,” says Carpenter.
Northern Ireland have never been crowned European champions in 33 attempts, but beat both Scotland and Wales in the dedicated regional qualifier for the 2011 World Cup.
NORTHERN IRELAND (squad): H Willis (capt), G Gibney, N Cooper, L McCaffrey, O McCullough (all Graduates); C O’Hanlon, N Masters, M Drayne, L Somerville (all Larkfield), N Lennon, F Toner, M Toner (all Belfast Ladies).