Northern Ireland set for fireworks in International Festival of Netball
There should be fireworks at the Antrim Forum over Halloween as three of the world's top 12 teams compete in the inaugural four-nation International Festival of Netball.
Northern Ireland are determined to make home advantage count as they target what would be a second international trophy triumph, following the 2009 Nations Cup success in Singapore.
Standing in the way of the hosts, who are ranked 11th in the world, are the countries immediately either side of them in the pecking order, netball-mad Caribbean nations Barbados and St Lucia.
The invitational tournament will be played in a round robin format with the top two teams meeting in Sunday's final after the other sides have faced off for third place.
Tomorrow night's showdown with St Lucia looks like the crunch clash for the girls in green – but only if they have successfully seen off outsiders Botswana in this evening's crucial opening game (5pm).
The Africans are ranked 18th in the world but drew 43-43 with Northern Ireland in a warm-up match in Singapore a few days before the 2011 World Cup.
Kate Carpenter's team will want to hit the ground running with a convincing victory which sets them up for the St Lucia clash, when a second win would book a place in Sunday's decider.
With an intense schedule against typically physical sides, coach Carpenter will have to strike a balance between giving her preferred permutation time together and keeping top players fresh.
World-class centre Caroline O'Hanlon has been passed fit for the tournament but may be used sparingly in the opening game to protect her recently broken ribs.
On the other hand, Northern Ireland will want to put their best foot forward so it would be no surprise if Carpenter chooses to field her strongest seven from the off.
The coach can then ring the changes early if her big guns have put the match beyond Botswana, and she has a viable bench to call on in any case, especially in terms of defensive depth.
Losing goalkeeper Gemma Gibney is a big blow but there is considerable competition for the two places in front of the injured skipper's likely stand-in Noleen Lennon, who normally plays at the other end of the court.
Nordia Masters, Frances Campbell, Fionnuala Toner, Niamh Cooper and Michelle Drayne are fighting it out for the two starting spots at goal defence and wing defence.
Lisa Somerville, back in international netball after almost four years out, has big boots to fill in replacing Lennon as chief shooter but should benefit from an experienced, classy supply line.
O'Hanlon, acting captain Hannah Willis and goal attack Oonagh McCullough have proved an effective attacking trio at international level and can create sufficient chances for six-footer Somerville.
There are still tickets available for Northern Ireland's matches tomorrow (7pm) and Saturday (1pm) and they will be streamed live on the Netball NI website.
NORTHERN IRELAND (squad): H Willis (capt), O McCullough, F Campbell, N Cooper (all Graduates); N Lennon, F Toner, C McLean, C Crosbie (all Belfast Ladies), C O'Hanlon, L Somerville, M Drayne, N Masters (all Larkfield).