Belfast Telegraph

Girls in green closing in on world stage

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland can effectively clinch qualification for next year's World Cup by beating Scotland in tonight's opening game of the European Championships in Cardiff.

Securing their ticket to Australia 2015 is the top priority for the girls in green this weekend with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland fighting for two tickets Down Under.

This year's Europeans double up as the regional qualifier for the World Cup so England, who are exempt due to their top four ranking, are sitting out the action. Their place in the top section is taken by the improving Republic of Ireland who have been bolstered by an influx of Aussie talent but aren't expected to threaten the established sides.

That means a victory over Scotland this evening would take the World Cup pressure off Kate Carpenter's team and let them build towards a Sunday showdown with Wales.

In the corresponding game in 2012, Northern Ireland edged Wales 49-47 to clinch runners-up place for the first time in 33 attempts.

They had hopes of making history last year by being crowned European champions because of perennial winners England fielding an experimental line-up but they couldn't take advantage and also lost to an impressive Welsh side. This spring, Northern Ireland's leading lights have also been playing in the BSL and the national team has had a packed programme of fixtures, so they couldn't be better prepared.

Since November's International Festival at Antrim Forum, Carpenter's side have been on productive tours to two strong netball regions, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.

Carpenter has been boosted by three top players, skipper Hannah Willis, her predecessor Gemma Gibney and vice-captain Noleen Lennon, coming through fitness tests.

Experienced centre Caroline O'Hanlon and defender Fionnuala Toner return after missing the trip to Fiji.

Last time the European Championships were hosted in Cardiff, Elaine Rice's side were whitewashed but bounced back to beat both Scotland and Wales at the 2011 World Cup qualifier.

"The Commonwealths will be a fantastic showcase and exhilarating experience for whoever is selected later, but this is a more important tournament in practical terms," insists O'Hanlon.

"It's vital for the future of Northern Ireland netball that we qualify for World Cups so at this stage we're not looking beyond our opening game against Scotland."

NORTHERN IRELAND squad: H Willis (capt), G Gibney, N Cooper, L McCaffrey, O McCullough (all Graduates); C O'Hanlon, N Masters, M Drayne, L Somerville (all Larkfield), N Lennon, F Toner, M Toner (all Belfast Ladies).

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