Northern Ireland team launch European Championship campaign

Captain Gemma Gibney

Captain Gemma Gibney

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Northern Ireland’s netballers launch their European Championships campaign on Friday on the back of eight wins from eight internationals this season.

They lifted the cross-continental Nations Cup in Singapore before Christmas with six successive victories and have since beaten Scotland in two friendlies.

However Julie Kimber’s side go into this tournament on her native Tyneside without their main strike weapon as star shooter Lisa Bowman is unavailable.

As a goal-scoring spearhead, the formidable Larkfield forward is as vital to this Northern Ireland international side as Kyle Lafferty is to the football team.

The Northern Ireland Player of the Year’s inspiring shooting helped the girls in green clinch seventh place at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Without her here, Northern Ireland could struggle to net enough goals in tight games against traditional rivals Scotland and Wales.

European netball is dominated by the home countries with the three celtic cousins always locked in a fight for runners-up place behind perennial champions England.

Bowman’s absence is compounded by the fact that experienced goal attack Oonagh McCullough has opted not to return to the set-up following a year in Australia.

So the scoring responsibility will fall upon the shoulders of her younger sisters Kyla and Jenna Bowman who were the strike-force for December’s Nations Cup final win.

Although she spent the domestic season playing goalkeeper for double winners Larkfield with her elder siblings paired up front, Jenna’s shooting impressed against Scotland recently.

When Euros were last held in England in 2012, Northern Ireland made history by claiming silver medals for the first time courtesy of a 49-47 win over Wales in the final fixture.

Providing their conversion rate in the scoring circle is satisfactory, Gemma Gibney’s girls have a realistic chance of emulating that achievement.

Kimber can field a strong team built around Graduates goalkeeper Gibney, defender Fionnuala Toner and Northern Ireland’s most capped player of all time, Caroline O’Hanlon.

Two from new vice-captain Neamh Woods, her predecessor Niamh Cooper and Hertfordshire Mavericks star Michelle Drayne will flank world-class centre O’Hanlon in mid-court.

O’Hanlon could conceivably be switched to goal attack where Kingsway’s Sarah Montgomery, who missed the Nations Cup final through illness, is another option.

Big defender Deborah McCarthy has been recalled to the squad since Singapore and she could partner Gibney in the back circle for added physicality with Toner going out to wing defence.

McCarthy and Laganside’s Rachael Morton replace the unavailable Laura Mason and Sinead Redmond in the two changes to the Nations Cup panel.

Premier League champions Larkfield still lead the way with seven players in the squad supplemented by two from Graduates and one apiece from Belfast Ladies, Kingsway and Laganside.

Newcastle will feel like home for Northern Ireland with coach Kimber being a Geordie and five of this squad having played for Team Northumbria in the British SuperLeague.

Toner, O’Hanlon, Gibney, Cooper and Drayne are all used to playing home matches at this week’s Sport Central venue and should have local crowd support against Scotland and Wales.

Northern Ireland open up against England today (1pm) before facing Wales tomorrow (3pm) and finishing against Scotland on Sunday (11am).

The second tier invitation tournament featuring some of Europe’s emerging nations Republic of Ireland, Switzerland, Malta and Gibraltar along with Israel, the United States and Grenada began yesterday.

SQUAD: G Gibney (capt), N Cooper (both Graduates); C O’Hanlon, N Woods, K Bowman, J Bowman, M Drayne, D McCarthy, K McCammon (all Larkfield), F Toner (Belfast Ladies), S Montgomery (Kingsway), R Morton (Laganside).