Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland want a big send off in friendly games ahead of Netball World Cup

 

Warrior spirit: Shaunagh Craig, Gemma Lawlor, Caroline O'Hanlon, Lisa McCaffery, (bottom row) Ciara Crosbie, Niamh Cooper, Michelle Drayne and Niamh Woods are off to the World Cup in Liverpool
Warrior spirit: Shaunagh Craig, Gemma Lawlor, Caroline O'Hanlon, Lisa McCaffery, (bottom row) Ciara Crosbie, Niamh Cooper, Michelle Drayne and Niamh Woods are off to the World Cup in Liverpool

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland netball fans are being given the opportunity of a unique insight into their team's World Cup preparations tomorrow night.

Head coach Dan Ryan will be wearing a microphone as he puts his players through their paces at an open training session at Lisburn Racquets Club (7-9pm).

The engaging Aussie, who doubles up as a renowned netball broadcaster in both hemispheres, is also scheduled to do a question and answer stint.

Supporters can mingle with the players, including star skipper Caroline O'Hanlon, a recent British SuperLeague winner with Manchester Thunder.

The 12 members of Ryan's World Cup squad will also be formally presented with their new playing dresses for next month's tournament in Liverpool.

Although Northern Ireland will have three training games before their departure, the difficulty finding international friendlies means this is effectively the team's official farewell.

Now styled as the 'PwC Warriors' after landing a lucrative sponsorship deal with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Northern Ireland will take on the England men's team twice this weekend.

These matches in Lisburn on Saturday (1pm) and Sunday (12pm) will be open to supporters, as will the following Saturday's game against the Isle of Man (11am) at the same venue.

Although the England Knights also played Scotland recently, cross-gender games are unusual in sport and these matches may have novelty value for those not aware that men's netball exists.

However, Warriors supremo Ryan is a former captain of the Australian men's national team and he believes these hit-outs will be useful exercises.

O'Hanlon revealed: "I suppose playing a men's team might raise a few eyebrows but we've even got Gaelic and basketball players in to train against in previous years.

"International netball is very physical and we'll also come up against a lot of taller players at the World Cup, so this type of work-out should be beneficial."

Northern Ireland haven't had a Test match since finishing eighth at the Commonwealth Games more than 14 months ago.

By contrast, the established big four of Australia, New Zealand, England and Jamaica, along with South Africa and Malawi, face each other regularly in Test series and mini-tournaments.

That makes it difficult for teams in the next bracket to push upwards and Northern Ireland deserve credit for repeatedly punching above their weight at major events.

The lack of fixtures also makes it harder to develop public interest but the Warriors won't go into the World Cup cold.

After leaving these shores, they will have a busy schedule of fully fledged warm-up matches in the week leading up to the tournament.

The squad depart for Manchester on July 3 and play Barbados and England A there before facing Trinidad and Malawi in Cardiff.

"It might have been nice to have a high-profile friendly as a send-off but that didn't prove possible," said O'Hanlon.

"It isn't easy for us to get regular games but the important thing is that we've four warm-up matches in four days when we're in the middle of our World Cup camp."

Northern Ireland face a baptism of fire with their opening game, on July 12, against reigning champions Australia.

They have further group games against lower-ranked Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in Pool One, needing to finish in the top three to progress.

Their likely opponents in phase two are New Zealand, Malawi and Barbados.

Based on rankings, Northern Ireland would be expected to end up in the fifth to eighth place play-offs pot with South Africa, Uganda and Malawi.

Northern Ireland have finished eighth or better at the last three major tournaments they have qualified for, the 2011 World Cup in Singapore, and Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

World-class centre O'Hanlon, now the squad's only survivor from the 2003 World Cup in Jamaica, has been a pivotal player in each of those campaigns.

Official flag-bearer for Team NI at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, she has been retained as Northern Ireland skipper.

"To captain your country at a World Cup is an exceptional privilege and I'm very proud to have been given the honour of leading in Liverpool," said O'Hanlon.

"We were delighted to qualify and now, with the squad finalised, it's excitingly close.

"We've set a high bar by our results over recent years and are working hard under Dan's direction to give ourselves the best of chance of performing well.

"We'll get great support in Liverpool but before that everyone's really looking forward to spending some time this Friday with the Northern Ireland netball family, so come on down."

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