Real Gem of a success for netball girls
It will be a happy Christmas for Northern Ireland netball after the girls in green clinched Nations Cup glory in the Far East.
Not even an ill-timed stomach bug could prevent Northern Ireland lifting the trophy for the second time in Singapore on Saturday. Julie Kimber's side beat Papua New Guinea in the final to emulate a famous first success under Elaine Rice in 2009.
In contrast to several earlier games, Gemma Gibney's girls got off to a flying start in the showpiece and deservedly led 16-4 after the opening quarter.
With illness leaving Northern Ireland vulnerable later in the game, that early lead proved very valuable as the physically imposing Pacific Islanders fought back.
A sick Sarah Montgomery was unable to take any part in the match, meaning the Bowman sisters were the only specialist shooters. However with Kyla Bowman weakened from first having the bug on Friday, she eventually had to be taken off following the third quarter.
That meant switching world-class centre Caroline O'Hanlon to goal attack and Northern Ireland's most capped player really rose to the challenge.
Her inspired shooting in support of Jenna Bowman enabled Northern Ireland to round off a wonderful week with a fitting flourish.
The tournament favourites impressively pulled away, outscoring PNG 13-9 in the last quarter to emphatically seal a sixth straight victory of the week.
One of three survivors from the successful squad of 2009, the evergreen O'Hanlon was a worthy Player of the Tournament. Like current captain Gibney, who won the individual award six years ago, O'Hanlon was on court for almost the entire tournament.
The top pair were only taken off in the second half against outclassed Chinese Taipei and their experience proved invaluable for this transitional team.
With frontline forward duo Lisa Bowman and Oonagh McCullough unavailable for the trip, having illness strike two shooters was cruel luck. But Northern Ireland proved very resilient and were rewarded with some sparkling pre-Christmas silverware.
With Montgomery ruled out, both Bowmans started with Michelle Drayne retained at wing attack and O'Hanlon completing an all-Larkfield front four.
Vice-captain Niamh Cooper was recalled at wing defence at the expense of Neamh Woods, who came on at centre when O'Hanlon had to move up front.
Gibney and defender Fionnuala Toner, the third link with the 2009 triumph, continued their impressive partnership in the back circle. They held the opposition to only four goals in that opening period but PNG hit back to take the second quarter 15-14.
PNG also took the third quarter 13-9 but Northern Ireland responded by reversing that scoreline in the last period to triumph by an impressive 11-goal margin.
Our girls came into this tournament as top seeds, ranked 12th in the world with hosts Singapore 15th, one place ahead of PNG with Botswana in 19th.
But being favourites brought its own pressures and both coach and captain were justifiably pleased with how their team had delivered.
"It's been a wonderful tournament for us, we've worked hard and played well and I think we've shown enough strength and skill consistently to deserve this," said a delighted Gibney.