Big-game experience will give us edge: Toner
Northern Ireland's netballers face a stern test against an ever-improving Malawi side in the opening fixture of the Commonwealth Games this morning (11.30am) but Fionnuala Toner believes that the Superleague experience gained by members of the squad over the last six months gives them a real chance of causing an upset.
Toner was one of seven players from the province who, along with coach Kate Carpenter, represented Team Northumbria last season, an unprecedented arrangement that saw the Newcastle-upon-Tyne based outfit improve to sixth in the standings after a bottom place finish in 2013.
While the players remained based in Northern Ireland to train, they travelled to the north-east of England for weekend games and the regular competition provided invaluable preparation for this summer's games.
Ahead of today's opener at the SECC Precinct arena, Toner said: "The experience of playing in the Superleague was something that was great for us.
"To be playing against quality players every week, and to get into the routine of preparation that you need to do that, was important.
"The experience of playing games like that in big venues is something that we can take into this week with us.
"It was tough with the team training separately and then having to travel on a Friday but it was definitely worth it and I think it will hold us in good stead."
The preparations have been strong – warm-up matches with Trinidad and Tobago and then Jamaica went well – and with their increased high-level experience, Northern Ireland are expecting to make an impact in a tournament that will see the usual heavyweights Australia, New Zealand and England begin as favourites.
"We were talking a few weeks ago about what we wanted to achieve and as a team we have set ourselves a stretch goal of finishing fifth.
"I think if we were to finish anything less than eighth, we'd be very disappointed but we are definitely capable of doing it.
"There is obviously going to be games that we're focusing on and targeting but we'll give all the games our best shot.
"It will be tough against Malawi but with it being the first game of the tournament we're hoping that we can maybe catch them on the back foot."