Pregnant Rice backing Irish Students to deliver

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Irish Students netball coach, Elaine Rice is hoping to board a flight for South Africa early tomorrow morning as scheduled in spite of being plagued by pregnancy-related severe sickness.

Richard Bullick reports

Elaine pictured with one of the Irish Students squad members, Emma Doherty, who is a trainee dentist from Derry.

Elaine pictured with one of the Irish Students squad members, Emma Doherty, who is a trainee dentist from Derry.

The Derry woman has already been hospitalised three times due to her condition but is determined that the problem won’t stop her taking charge of the girls in green at the inaugural World University Championships in Cape Town.

It is a stressful situation for former N. Ireland captain Rice, who grew up in the Culmore Road area of the city and, as Elaine McLaughlin, appeared in two World Cups as a player before really making her mark as international netball’s brightest young coach.

Thankfully though, the 35-year-old will have two qualified medical experts with her throughout the African adventure – by complete coincidence both her captain Oonagh McCullough and Irish Students star player, Caroline O’Hanlon are hospital doctors, in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital and Craigavon respectively!

If the Irish players want an inspirational example of courage, commitment, pushing yourself to the limit and going beyond the call of duty, these qualities are undoubtedly embodied by the woman who has presided over the impressive rise in NI’s international netball fortunes.

This time two years ago, Rice famously steered the team through the regional World Cup qualifying event in Glasgow in spite of being in the middle of an even more problematic pregnancy.

Northern Ireland secured their ticket to the sport’s top tournament by defeating both hosts, Scotland and the much better funded Wales on consecutive days, an achievement made more notable by the fact Rice was in hospital both the week before and week after the event!

Last summer in Singapore she took N.Ireland to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time and is now hoping for similar heroics in South Africa from a strong Irish Students squad which includes her fellow North West woman, Emma Doherty, a trainee dentist from Derry.

The tour party leave Belfast late tonight (Friday) with Elaine hoping her sickness has eased sufficiently to make the journey tolerable after a rough few days – though she still refused to miss the final squad session in Lisburn on Tuesday evening.

“Unfortunately I’ve been down this road before in 2010 when I was hospitalised no fewer than 10 times before having my second little girl, Emma, and it’s not particularly pleasant but at least I’m used to it now and you just try to battle on,” she told the Journal.

“Touch wood, I’ve avoided having to go into hospital for the last seven weeks or so, though I was very sick towards the end of last week and have been again from this Tuesday. At least it’s nothing new now!

“Realistically I’d expect to be struggling at some stage when we’re away given the pattern of sickness recently but fingers crossed I can weather the storm without having to be taken into hospital over there.”

The youngest and only non full-time coach at last summer’s World Cup, the impressive Rice has juggled her netball commitments with being mum to two young children and working as a senior lecturer at St Mary’s University College in Belfast.

Before stepping down as NI national coach she had masterminded the team’s rise from 19th to an all-time high of 11th in the world rankings and will have nine full internationals on Irish Students duty in Cape Town next week.

“We’re really fortunate that the particular circumstances of several top players in their mid-20s tie in with what is quite liberal eligibility criteria, enabling me to pick an exceptionally strong squad,” explains Elaine.

“I’ve got half my 2011 World Cup panel plus three more players who were involved in the recent European Championships when N. Ireland secured runners-up place for the first time ever.”

Captain McCullough can take part thanks to the one year period of grace post graduation while European player of 2010 O’Hanlon, who doubles up as the top ladies gaelic footballer in Ulster, has been a hospital doctor for three years but is eligible through part-time studies.

“Ever since this tournament came on the horizon it felt like a great opportunity, particularly when we realised how many of our big hitters could be selected, and with Australia and New Zealand not sending sides, our objective is to reach the semi-finals and take it from there.

“That’s an ambitious target and we’d have to beat one of the world’s top five to get among the medals but I genuinely believe this squad has the ability, maturity and international experience to make a real impact at this tournament.

“We’ve prepared professionally and everyone’s really looking forward now to getting over there and getting stuck into the matches,” said Rice, who herself sets an example that is second to none in terms of self-sacrifice, commitment and drive.

The Irish Students face hosts South Africa in a tough tournament opener on Monday but will be favourites in each of their two remaining group games against the USA and Zimbabwe with second place in the pool liable to set up a quarter-final clash with the ultra-physical Ugandans.