Commonwealth Games: Malawi prove too good for plucky but outclassed Northern Ireland debutants
Northern Ireland's dream of finishing fifth at their first ever Commonwealth Games effectively ended with a predictable 71-50 debut defeat by mighty Malawi.
Given the honour of featuring in the opening game of the netball tournament at Glasgow 2014, the girls in green netted immediately through Noleen Lennon.
They raced into an early 3-1 lead against the world's fifth ranked team but a disastrous second quarter put paid to any hopes of a huge upset.
The battling NI girls had the consolation of edging the final quarter against the abrasive Africans but still lost by a comfortable margin of 21 goals.
It will get even tougher for them – Jamaica are next up this evening (7pm) followed by reigning Commonwealth champions New Zealand on Sunday.
After facing three of the world's top five ranked nations, the crunch clashes for the emerald ladies will come next week against St Lucia and hosts Scotland.
Northern Ireland need to win those two games to emulate the excellent top eight finish achieved at the 2011 World Cup in Singapore.
Yesterday's match had historic significance as no female team from any sport had previously qualified to represent Northern Ireland at a Commonwealth Games or Ireland at an Olympics.
With netball being a sport completely dominated by Commonwealth countries, this is a World Cup in all but name and simply qualifying for Glasgow was a considerable achievement.
Although the more realistic target is seventh, Hannah Willis's side harboured hopes of ambushing Malawi in the opener.
But the favourites proved their worth with star shooter Mwai Kumwenda displaying the finishing which has earned her a lucrative contract in Australia.
Largely thanks to her, Malawi converted 96 percent of their shots. Northern Ireland missed one in four with Oonagh McCullough particularly culpable.
Having come into the tournament confident following an impressive season for Team Northumbria in the British SuperLeague, McCullough was treated for injury in the first quarter.
Taken off briefly late in the second, she continued missing shots after returning alongside Lisa Somerville, with Lennon reverting to goal-keeper.
The excellent Lennon netted all of her first 17 attempts and didn't draw a blank until the 28th minute but the 30-year-old subsequently proved effective at the other end of the court too.
However losing that second quarter 21-8 left the underdogs with too much to do and the gap grew to 56-34 going into the last period.
Niamh Cooper had replaced Nordia Masters after the opening quarter with Fionnuala Toner switching to wing defence, but Malawi were ruthless in exploiting errors and punishingly physical.
Maire Toner came on fleetingly for McCullough, a change reversed at half-time along with the introduction of Somerville in place of Cooper with several resulting switches.
Gemma Gibney and Fionnuala Toner each moved forward one position at the start of the second half, while skipper Willis was replaced by Lisa McCaffrey for the final quarter.
That meant experienced and impressively consistent centre Caroline O'Hanlon was the only player to occupy the same position throughout.
Understandable nerves and having to play the morning after the late night opening ceremony may have contributed to this heavy defeat, but this team knows its best is yet to come.
NORTHERN IRELAND: G Gibney, N Masters, F Toner, C O'Hanlon, H Willis (capt), O McCullough, N Lennon. Subs: N Cooper for Masters, M Toner for McCullough (temp), L Somerville for Cooper, L McCaffrey for Willis.