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NI suffer real blow in hunt for Euro delight

Northern Ireland 44 Wales 51

On move: NI ace Michelle Drayne
On move: NI ace Michelle Drayne

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland's hopes of being crowned European netball champions for the first time ever this weekend have been dealt a severe setback by an opening-day defeat to Wales.

Wales won 51-44 against Dan Ryan's side at Antrim Forum, pulling away again in the last quarter after some superb shooting by Lisa Bowman had hauled the hosts back to level terms.

Giant goal machine Bowman missed this summer's World Cup with a broken ankle but was introduced at half-time with the PwC Warriors trailing 25-20.

She nailed each of her first 13 shots, bringing the home team level on three occasions, before missing a very difficult chance late in the third quarter.

There were only two goals in it at the last break but Wales scored the first three of the final period and closed out what had been an absorbing game with relative comfort.

Northern Ireland brought plenty of skill and heart to what was a very physical contest but the girls in green used up more emotional energy by being behind for almost all of the afternoon.

With England coming to the Euros with a very experimental line-up, Northern Ireland's opening game against Wales always looked like a crunch clash for both teams.

Whoever won would be perfectly placed to challenge perennial title winners England for the trophy but now Northern Ireland are relying on another result going their way to be in contention.

They will need the holders to beat Wales today and then pull off a first ever victory over England themselves tomorrow (noon), while also swinging the goal difference in their favour.

In the first instance that means absolutely putting the Republic of Ireland, who lost their opener to England 73-16, to the sword this afternoon (2pm) in a game where Ryan would have hoped to utilise his squad.

If England do Northern Ireland a favour by beating Wales earlier, the coach will have to balance the imperative to go for broke with the desire to blood uncapped pair Rebecca McCullough and Frances Keenan.

The Warriors are playing catch-up in terms of this tournament and it was much the same with yesterday's game after failing to assert themselves early on.

Perhaps subconsciously burdened by the sense of unprecedented opportunity this weekend, Northern Ireland made a nervous start, though both teams coughed up possession on occasions.

It was 10-12 after the opening period, the scores being evenly shared between Shaunagh Craig, who got the nod as starting goal shooter ahead of Bowman, and Emma Magee.

Wales extended their advantage to five by the end of a second quarter in which the greens missed five of their 15 shots, prompting Ryan to introduce Bowman, with Craig switching to goal attack.

His side outscored Wales 15-12 in that period and had some momentum but the superior conversion rate of Wales, who missed only five shots in the game to 11 by the Warriors, gave them a precious cushion.

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