Belfast Telegraph

Award-winning duo set to join forces for NI's Euro Championship opener

 

Net gains: Netball NI award winners Fionnuala Toner (left) and Michelle Magee will link up against Wales tomorrow
Net gains: Netball NI award winners Fionnuala Toner (left) and Michelle Magee will link up against Wales tomorrow

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland will have two recently crowned award winners teaming up in the back circle when they launch their bid for European Championship glory against Wales tomorrow.

Vice-captain Fionnuala Toner was named International Player of the Year at last weekend's Netball NI Awards dinner, while teenager Michelle Magee picked up the International Young Player of the Year gong.

The potential of the pairing was highlighted during this summer's World Cup and now the two Belfast women will have the opportunity to build a long-term partnership.

Long-serving goalkeeper Gemma Lawlor's absence from Dan Ryan's squad is compounded by Noleen Armstrong's return to international retirement.

However, with both these hugely experienced players out of the picture, PwC Warriors supremo Ryan can still field an effective combination in defence for tomorrow afternoon's crunch clash in Antrim.

Although still just 19, the younger of the two Magee sisters in the squad appears ready to take on the mantle of first-choice goalkeeper with Toner alongside her in the circle.

There is a school of thought that the brilliant Toner can influence matches most from mid-court but the silver lining of utilising her at goal defence is that Niamh Cooper can be accommodated in the starting seven.

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With 52 Test caps to her name thus far and recently signed by British SuperLeague side Surrey Storm, 27-year-old Cooper will relish the opportunity to become a more influential figure for her country.

At the World Cup, Cooper and Magee essentially split the game-time with Toner swapping positions accordingly, though all three featured for periods when Lawlor was rested.

Barring injury, that trio are likely to play the full 60 minutes against Wales, with Larkfield goalkeeper Rebecca McCullough set to win her first cap against the Republic of Ireland on Saturday.

Even with Neamh Woods out injured, Ryan has experienced mid-court cover for wing defence Cooper, captain Caroline O'Hanlon and Michelle Drayne in the versatile Lisa McCaffrey.

The squad's other fresh face, Frances Keenan, can play wing attack as well as being one of five recognised shooters in the 12 along with Lisa Bowman, Shaunagh Craig, Ciara Crosbie and Emma Magee.

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