Future looks bright as Northern Ireland netball team secure World Cup qualification
Northern Ireland netball legend Noleen Lennon rolled back the years in Perth on Saturday to shoot the girls in green into next year's World Cup finals.
Elaine Rice's side secured qualification for Liverpool 2019 with a superb peformance which brought them a convincing 57-42 victory over Wales.
Because Wales had already lost to hosts Scotland, 52-40 on Friday night, that second defeat eliminated them, rendering yesterday's final fixture a dead rubber between two qualified teams.
It was understandably difficult for Northern Ireland to get up for another battle at noon after the euphoria of the evening before and the Scots won 52-31 in front of a very vocal crowd.
The result dented Northern Ireland's hopes of pushing up to an astonishing seventh in the international rankings but World Cup qualification was all that really mattered here.
Missing out on the 2015 World Cup in Sydney after an agonising 45-44 defeat by Scotland led to significant funding cuts for Netball NI, leaving the players facing financial hardship.
Not qualifying for next year's tournament would have been catastrophic for the sport's future here and likely led to high-profile retirements after April's Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
But now Lennon, who skippered Northern Ireland at Singapore 2011, and current captain Caroline O'Hanlon can both look forward to a third World Cup of their exceptional careers.
Both showed real leadership on Saturday. World-class centre O'Hanlon pulled the strings superbly from the middle of the court and Lennon nailed the chances created with great authority and composure.
Although Northern Ireland were the highest ranked of the three Celtic cousins chasing the last two European places at the World Cup, they had suffered a big blow going into these qualifiers.
Star shooter Lisa Bowman, the woman who had netted the last-gasp winning goals against both Wales and Scotland in last October's European Championships, was ruled out by injury.
The goal machine damaged her ankle in Northern Ireland's last training session before departure for Perth and now faces a race to be fit for April's Commonwealth Games.
But the versatile Lennon, whose height has been deployed in the back circle in recent years, returned to her old shooting role and delivered a Player of the Match performance.
Northern Ireland won every quarter of the crunch clash against a Welsh side ranked ninth in the world and fighting for their World Cup lives.
It was 16-11 after the opening period, 28-21 at half-time and Northern Ireland ruthlessly kept pushing hard as they outscored the Welsh 29-21 in the second half.