Belfast Telegraph

We've made things more difficult after loss: Ryan

Northern Ireland 49 Zimbabwe 51

On the ball: NI ace Caroline O’Hanlon in the thick of battle
On the ball: NI ace Caroline O’Hanlon in the thick of battle

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland's World Cup plan lies in tatters after a devastating 51-49 defeat against Zimbabwe in the match of the tournament so far.

The PwC Warriors were two goals ahead with four minutes left but couldn't close out the game against the World Cup's surprise package with several missed shots and late turnovers proving very costly.

Zimbabwe were roared on by their large band of fanatical supporters who have brought such verve and noise to the tournament and they partied long into the evening in Liverpool.

It was an absolutely thrilling game which generated an amazing atmosphere in the M&S Bank Arena, but being part of a memorable encounter will be scant consolation to Northern Ireland.

Dan Ryan's side still qualify for the competition's second phase by finishing third in Pool A behind champions Australia and the African newcomers, so are guaranteed a place in the top 12.

However, their hopes of finishing in the top eight for a fourth major tournament running, or even pushing higher, were relying upon winning two initial group games.

Adding a victory over Zimbabwe to Saturday's 67-50 triumph against Sri Lanka would have seen Northern Ireland carrying a precious set of win points through to the second phase.

Now, though, they will need to overcome mighty Malawi today (9.25am) as well as subsequently see off Barbados and rely on Zimbabwe being beaten by their Africa rivals.

Even then goal difference could count against the Warriors, who came into yesterday's crunch clash on the back of inferior results to their opponents.

"We must pick up and go again in a tough game against Malawi for our campaign isn't over, but we've made things a lot harder than we'd want it to be and this result is a tough pill to swallow," admitted Ryan.

"I'm incredibly disappointed for I think we should have won the game. It was a gutting way to finish but that's what happens when players stop trusting each other. Zimbabwe had trust between every single player."

Zimbabwe had hammered Sri Lanka by a 30-goal margin in their opening game and only lost 73-37 to the awesome Aussies compared to Northern Ireland's 88-24 defeat the day before.

So a case could have been made for Zimbabwe being favourites yesterday in spite of the respective rankings, but the hope was that Ryan's side could make their extra big-game experience count.

The team ranked eighth did begin brightly against 13th-placed Zimbabwe, streaking into a 5-1 lead inside the first three minutes.

However, Lloyd Makunde's side gradually grew into the game and, although never on level terms, reached the first interval trailing just 15-12.

The former outsiders turned the tables in the second quarter, with a precise reversal of the opening period's scoreline and the spoils were shared in the third, making it 39-39 at the last break.

Earlier, Ryan had gone with Niamh Cooper ahead of Michelle Magee in defence so Fionnuala Toner was deployed alongside goalkeeper Gemma Lawlor in the back circle.

Noleen Armstrong was preferred up front to former England age group player Shaunagh Craig, partnering young Emma Magee who has been a real revelation.

Goal attack Magee had nailed 29 of her 32 shots against Asian champions Sri Lanka in a good all round display and must have come close to being Player of the Match.

However, the individual award went to Warriors captain Caroline O'Hanlon, who had made a remarkable recovery from the sickening collision which forced her off against Australia.

She typically dictated terms in what was her 100th Test, following Armstrong reaching the milestone in the warm-up match against Trinidad, as Northern Ireland got the job done.

O'Hanlon acknowledged that it had been a patchy performance from the Warriors, while Ryan also stressed his team would need to play better against Zimbabwe.

It was a good display in many regards yesterday with the Warriors creating 62 scoring chances to 53 for the Gems, but their conversion rate was crucially lower with Armstrong just on 76 per cent compared to counterpart Joice Takaidza's 96.

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