Belfast Telegraph

'For the love of the game': Ryan proud to lead amateur Northern Ireland squad into Netball World Cup

 

Team talk: Dan Ryan and his NI Warriors stars
Team talk: Dan Ryan and his NI Warriors stars

By Richard Bullick

Dan Ryan has declared that he'll be proud to be in the green corner when Northern Ireland open their Netball World Cup campaign against his native Australia in Liverpool tomorrow (live on Sky Sports, 11am).

Tackling the dazzling Diamonds, world champions since 2007, is the toughest possible start, but head coach Ryan believes his Warriors will relish the experience.

Northern Ireland had a similar baptism of fire at last year's Commonwealth Games when hammered 94-26 by hosts Australia on the competition's opening night.

That result didn't define Northern Ireland's Gold Coast campaign, however, as they fought through to finish an excellent eighth, and there will be more meaningful matches ahead here too.

The real business begins at the weekend when the Warriors are expected to win their remaining group games against lower-ranked Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

That would set up possible second-phase fixtures against New Zealand, Malawi and Barbados, with one more win likely to guarantee Northern Ireland another top-eight finish.

Before then, though, there is the small matter for Ryan's amateurs of facing Australia, where even franchise netball teams are full-time professionals.

Nobody is more aware of the glaring gulf between these two netball nations than Ryan, but he admires how the gallant greens have repeatedly punched above their weight at world level.

"I've enormous respect for these women and am very proud to be their coach. This is netball in its purest form, people playing for the love of the game and making sacrifices to represent their country with pride and passion," he enthused.

"They're a great group and I'm really enjoying working with them. These athletes are very receptive to new ideas and want to be better than they've ever been before.

"We're realistic about the outcome against Australia but I want to see fearlessness from my team, and hopefully we're becoming more equipped to handle the onslaught.

"In many ways it's the perfect fixture to start with and a chance for me to get everyone on the court and feeling a proper part of this tournament from day one."

So Ryan is intending to share out the game time tomorrow across his squad, and there is fierce competition for places in his strongest starting seven, which may also vary on a horses for courses basis.

First-choice wing attack Michelle Drayne has been sidelined lately by torn ankle ligaments, giving the experienced Lisa McCaffrey and Tyrone Gaelic captain Neamh Woods plenty of opportunity.

The four warm-up matches have given Ryan the chance to try out a range of fresh attacking circle combinations between his shooting quartet.

Bedford-born newcomer Shaunagh Craig has often been paired with former NI Under-21 captain Emma Magee, with returning veteran Noleen Armstrong partnered by Belfast Ladies clubmate Ciara Crosbie.

The 6ft 2in duo of Northern Ireland's 2011 World Cup captain Armstrong and former England Under-21 international Craig haven't been used together much but the latter could play goal attack.

Another possible permutation is to utilise Armstrong alongside Gemma Lawlor in the established back circle combo of recent years, though Ryan has other options in defence.

Precocious teenager Michelle Magee has shown her worth at goal defence, while deploying vice-captain Fionnuala Toner there would mean the imposing Niamh Cooper could be accommodated too.

The unlucky Cooper's physicality is a real asset but many feel that playing wing defence gives the brilliant Toner greatest scope to influence a game with her smart steals and flying intercepts.

NI skipper Caroline O'Hanlon left the court injured against Malawi last Sunday, while her Aussie counterpart Caitlin Bassett sustained concussion in training but both are expected to play.

NORTHERN IRELAND (squad): Caroline O'Hanlon (capt), Fionnuala Toner, Gemma Lawlor, Michelle Magee, Niamh Cooper, Neamh Woods, Michelle Drayne, Lisa McCaffery, Emma Magee, Ciara Crosbie, Shaunagh Craig, Noleen Armstrong.

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