Belfast Telegraph

Elaine Rice is feeling positive ahead of Euro tests

By Richard Bullick

Antrim Forum will host the biggest international netball tournament to have been staged outside of World Cups or Commonwealth Games from this morning.

Over the next four days, Northern Ireland will face five of the world's 11 highest ranked teams at the inaugural European Open, including a demanding double-header tomorrow.

This new-look invitational tournament replaces the annual European Championships, which had become stale thanks to the weakness of continental netball.

As a result, the elite section consistently contained perpetual champions England and their Celtic cousins, who were effectively fighting for the runners-up spot.

So, South Africa and Trinidad have been brought in this time to create a top tier featuring half of the world's dozen leading netball nations with lesser sides making up a second division.

At 12, the lowest ranked of the competing teams, hosts Northern Ireland will undoubtedly be up against it in spite of finishing a superb seventh at last summer's Commonwealth Games.

The girls in green finished ahead of Commonwealth hosts Scotland, Wales and Trinidad at Glasgow 2014 but Elaine Rice can call on only half of that squad this week.

Northern Ireland's catastrophic failure to qualify for this August's World Cup in Australia has prompted the early retirement of several leading lights who would otherwise have held on.

Commonwealths captain Hannah Willis and vice-captain Noleen Lennon have called it a day along with Nordia Masters, while another front-liner, Oonagh McCullough, and Maire Toner are abroad and Lisa McCaffrey has taken a year out.

Graduates goalkeeper Gemma Gibney returns as skipper with veteran vice-captain Caroline O'Hanlon, a fixture since the 2003 World Cup, the most experienced player in the squad of 12.

O'Hanlon heads a seven-strong contingent from Premier League champions Larkfield including the three Bowman sisters, with Kyla and Jenna joining giant goal machine Lisa.

The eldest Bowman netted 46 of Northern Ireland's 58 goals in the impressive victory over this afternoon's opening opponents Wales in the seventh place play-off at Glasgow 2014.

There is also a call-up for Tyrone gaelic captain Neamh Woods, who plays for Larkfield alongside her Armagh counterpart O'Hanlon, who lifted the NFL Division Two trophy last weekend.

Along with Graduates forward Sarah Montgomery, Woods looks like a valuable addition while Rice has recalled two of her 2011 World Cup panel, Kyla Bowman and Deborah McCarthy.

The intense schedule sees Northern Ireland face Scotland tomorrow morning (10.30am) and South Africa at tea-time (6.30pm) following today's opener against Wales (2.30pm) so squad depth is set to be tested.

It will be tough for the hosts but the inspirational Rice's return as coach following unpopular Kiwi Kate Carpenter's departure for Fiji has generated a feel-good factor.

The senior lecturer, who steered Northern Ireland to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever at Singapore 2011, is typically positive.

"You never like losing stalwarts but the calibre of players coming in is very encouraging and there is actually fierce competition for starting spots and multiple permutations to consider," insists Rice. "Having home advantage is a big boost and I understand ticket sales have been going well so we should have vocal support. A win over Wales would set us up perfectly for the following days."

There are six matches on each of the first three days with three games on Sunday, culminating in Northern Ireland against tournament favourites England.

NORTHERN IRELAND (squad): G Gibney (capt), N Cooper, S Montgomery (all Graduates); C O'Hanlon, L Bowman, K Bowman, N Woods, D McCarthy, M Drayne, J Bowman (all Larkfield); F Toner, C Crosbie (both Belfast Ladies).

NI FIXTURES: v Wales (today, 2.30pm); v Scotland (Fri, 10.30am), v South Africa (Fri, 6.30pm), v Trinidad (Sat, 4.30pm), v England (Sun, 12.30pm).

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