Northern Ireland’s netballers face a baptism of fire when they take on hosts Australia tomorrow in front of a capacity crowd of over 5000 on the opening night of action at Gold Coast 2018.
World champions and defending Commonwealth champions, the awesome Aussies are top seeds and hot favourites for a second successive Games gold.
It will be an unforgettable experience for the girls in green but the inevitable outcome against this physically imposing, fully professional side won’t define NI’s Gold Coast campaign.
The top 12 netballing nations are all Commonwealth countries so Elaine Rice’s side will face six tough games in eight days, though at least their fixtures fall favourably.
The teams are split into two groups of six with the top two in each making the semi-finals and the rest ending with a classification fixture against the corresponding side in the other pool.
Northern Ireland achieved a superb seventh place on their first Commonwealths appearance at Glasgow 2014 and have recently reached an all-time high of eighth in the world rankings.
An outstandingly successful last 12 months has secured unprecedented profile for the team but brought heightened expectations of finishing fourth or better in their group.
After the glamour game against Australia, Northern Ireland will have a crack at upsetting South Africa on Saturday, their most realistic chance of breaking into the top six.
Eclipsing Caribbean giants Jamaica on Sunday should be beyond Northern Ireland but they then have a rest day before the crunch clashes against beatable Barbados and Fiji.
Those sides have traditionally been above Northern Ireland in the pecking order but the girls in great have beaten both in the past year and will be backing themselves to do so again.
Beating Barbados in last June’s Quad Series final clinched NI’s tickets to Gold Coast and they defeated Fiji in a one-off Test alongside October’s European Championships.
Rice’s crew claimed silver medals at the Euros with wins over Wales and Scotland and subsequently qualified for next year’s World Cup before being honoured with various awards.
World-class centre Caroline O’Hanlon, one of nine survivors from Glasgow 2014, captains a strong squad which includes star shooter Lisa Bowman in spite of fitness fears.
Bowman missed January’s European regional qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup after tearing ankle ligaments but made her British SuperLeague comeback for Team Northumbria last month.
Northern Ireland concluded their warm-up programme by beating the Tasmanian state side in Hobart last Saturday with all of the squad getting court-time.
NORTHERN IRELAND (squad): Caroline O’Hanlon (capt), Lisa Bowman, Kyla Bowman, Michelle Drayne, Neamh Woods (all Larkfield), Fionnuala Toner, Noleen Lennon, Gemma Gibney, Oonagh McCullough, Lisa McCaffrey (all Belfast Ladies), Niamh Cooper, Michelle Magee (both Kingsway).