Northern Ireland’s dreams of being crowned European netball champions for the first time ended with a crushing 75-44 defeat by England in Cardiff last night.
Powerful full-timers England generally win the annual European Championships all too comfortably but have come to this tournament with a relatively experimental panel.
They were pushed harder than usual in their opening game against Scotland before winning 61-48 while Northern Ireland had overcome hosts Wales 47-46 in their first fixture.
However the Scots probably benefited from catching the hot favourites cold, for England looked much closer to their formidable best against the girls in green.
England led 17-9 after a disappointing first quarter for Northern Ireland who found themselves up against opponents who were strong defensively and slick in attack.
With typical resolve, Elaine Rice’s side battled bravely to keep the half-time score to 33-22 but the English extended their advantage to 17 goals going into the last period at 50-33 up.
With this morning’s Test against Fiji (10.30am) starting just 13 hours after the England game ended, the coach made the pragmatic call to take off a couple of top players for the last quarter.
Captain Caroline O’Hanlon made way for her Larkfield club colleague Neamh Woods at centre while star shooter Lisa Bowman was also withdrawn with Noleen Lennon moving up front alongside Kyla Bowman.
Ruthless England put the reshuffled side to the sword in that last 15 minutes, netting a further 25 goals to take their eventual victory margin to a commanding 29.
Fiji are in Cardiff for Tests against each of the home nations alongside the European Championships and have been ranked seventh in the world for the past couple of years.
But they have already lost to Scotland and Wales on this trip and Northern Ireland will hope to complete a celtic hat-trick against the Pearls this morning if fatigue hasn’t taken its toll.
Against England, Rice made two changes to the starting team from the win over Wales with Kingsway pair Sarah Montgomery and Niamh Cooper brought into the initial line-up.
Montgomery replaced exile Michelle Drayne at wing attack with Cooper taking over at wing defence from vice-captain Fionnuala Toner who had been below her best against Wales