Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland girls feel the cutting edge of Australia class

Australia 94-26 Northern Ireland

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland's worst nightmare almost materialised as the Aussie Diamonds sparkled in the opening game of their netball title defence at Gold Coast 2018.

Awesome Australia showed why they are the best team in the world with a dazzling display which thrilled a capacity crowd of over 5000 as they hammered Elaine Rice's side 94-26.

As the Aussies cut loose, there were real fears that their tally of goals could reach the century mark but the gallant greens dug deep in the last quarter to ensure that ignominious milestone was never reached.

With the match being televised live in the prime-time evening slot, the Commonwealth hosts were naturally keen to put their best foot forward and never relented at any stage.

It was a highly impressive performance from the fully-professional world champions, who are hot favourites to repeat their gold medal triumph at Glasgow 2014.

There was always a dangerous that this opening game could feel like women's against girls given the physical superiority and sheer quality of this Aussie squad.

Although Northern Ireland have risen to an all-time high of eighth in the world on the back of an outstandingly successful 12 months, these Aussies are in a different league to most teams.

Many would have expected Australia to run up a cricket score and they built the base by racing into an ominous 23-9 lead by the end of the first quarter.

It was 44-15 at half-time and Australia dominated even more during the third period, when they had the ball for just over 10 minutes, and were 71-20 ahead by the last break.

The rampant Aussies added 14 goals by the mid-point of the final quarter, making a three-figure score a real possibility but Northern Ireland refused to let their heads drop.

Some good defence combined with holding onto the ball a bit better while in possession was supplemented by two wonderful long-range goals by Noleen Lennon and Oonagh McCullough.

Being part of such a showcase occasion will be an unforgettable experience for the players and this inevitable beating by the best in the business won't define Northern Ireland's tournament.

They will regroup for tomorrow's crack at fifth seeds South Africa, who they ran close in the third Test at Cape Town in 2012 and pushed hard at Antrim Forum three years ago.

With an even tougher game against Caribbean giants Jamaica on Sunday, upsetting South Africa would appear Northern Ireland's most realistic chance of finishing in the top six.

There may be more meaningful matches ahead but Rice expressed disappointment that her team hadn't come closer to Australia in some aspects of the game.

"Australia are exceptionally professional, they execute basics almost to perfection, are superb physically, possess lots of flair and have outstanding shooting stats," she reflected.

"But we were outclassed in many areas tonight and, although it was tough, feel we should have responded to those difficult challenges much better.

"As a team we feel we have more to offer and are determined to deliver improved and more consistent performances in the big games to come, starting against South Africa."

The Aussies had a 93% shot percentage. In contrast, Northern Ireland's was 63% as they were outclassed.

With the outcome never in doubt, Rice rung the changes for each quarter in giving all 12 of her squad significant court-time and having a look at a number of permutations.

NORTHERN IRELAND (v Australia): G Gibney, N Lennon, F Toner, C O'Hanlon (capt), O McCullough, K Bowman, L Bowman. Subs (all used): N Cooper, M Drayne, N Woods, M Magee, L McCaffrey.

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