NORTHERN Ireland’s senior international netball team leave for the World Cup in Singapore next Tuesday with high hopes of a top 10 finish after a few years of impressive progress under the tutelage of Derry woman, Elaine Rice.
RICHARD BULLICK reports
Rice, who as Elaine McLaughlin, appeared in two World Cups as a player and also captained her country, has transformed the team’s fortunes and presided over their remarkable rise from 19th to 12th in the world rankings since late 2009.
Although she turned 34 this month, the Derry woman has achieved quite a lot in her professional life as well as in her coaching career and currently combines her N. Ireland netball role with working full-time as a senior lecturer at St. Mary’s University College in Belfast.
It’s a punishing schedule, especially when one considers the fact that Elaine is also mother to two young daughters under the age of three – Anna and Emma, who was born last Autumn after a tough pregnancy which saw Rice hospitalised no fewer than 10 times!
Two of those short stays in hospital were the weeks either side of last June’s regional qualifying event in Glasgow at which N. Ireland defeated both Wales – who have a full-time coach – and heavily-resourced hosts, Scotland, to secure their World Cup place.
There was also aggravation coming into that tournament when one of Rice’s players, former N. Ireland captain, Ciara Brunton, was de-selected over her head by Netball NI on a petty, pointless technicality!
Neither Rice nor Brunton have received an acceptable apology for the sorry saga which weakened the squad unnecessarily and it proved to be a distraction to the players and caused stress the coach could well have done without in her condition.
The coach and her players felt let down by the game’s governing body but, rather than letting the dispute undermine morale, they thrived on adversity and bounced back from disappointing performances at the European Championships in Cardiff a few weeks earlier to book their tickets to Singapore.
And Singapore has been a happy hunting ground for Rice’s team, who won the prestigious Nations Cup there in December, 2009 – Northern Ireland’s first ever international trophy triumph.
“We won six games in seven days, all five round robin matches and then the final,” Elaine explaind. “And four of the matches were against teams higher than us in the rankings at that time, so it was a great achievement.
“I think, to be honest, we surprised ourselves with how we did in that tournament – we lost only one of 24 quarters – and, as well as the confidence gained from winning it, the whole experience was valuable.
“All but one of our World Cup squad has played in Singapore previously so we’ll be familiar with the surroundings – and this tournament has a similar schedule to what we experienced 18 months ago in terms of having to play six competitive matches in a week.
“The Nations Cup was also a great opportunity to play against teams of contrasting styles and strengths from different parts of the world, something our traditional fixture list lacks due to financial constraints.
“The players dug deep to pay for that trip and have had to raise significant funds for going to the World Cup but they’re a great group of girls who are committed, motivated and ambitious.
“Getting into the world’s top 12 means we’ve been able to access support from the Sports Institute (SINI) and the players are really benefiting from the weekly strength and conditioning sessions there.”
Clearly the Derry native hold her players in the highest regard, indeed seven of them were in the Northern Ireland U21 squad which achieved a superb sixth place at the 2005 Junior World Championships in Florida.
However, N. Ireland failed to qualify for the 2007 World Cup and that golden generation had all but broken up before Rice’s appointment as coach coaxed several leading lights out of premature retirement from the international game.
With the understandable exception of Ciara Brunton, who has chosen to concentrate on her legal career after last summer’s snub, everyone has made themselves available again including her solicitor sister and a couple of doctors.
The players make many sacrifices, but being part of a successful side and a happy, positive set-up means that they are less likely to count the considerable costs. It is also evident that they hold their coach, who most have played with and against at club level, in high regard.
Unhappy memories of her second World Cup as a player, when Northern Ireland underachieved, have helped Rice realise the value of creating an energised environment which empowers players.
She’d been vice-captain at the 1999 tournament in New Zealand, when sister Suzanne (now Deery and a teacher at Derry’s Lumen Christi College) played alongside her and the girls in green lost the 15th place play-off to the United States in a 26-team competition.
“That was a great experience – we won our first eight group games and in total played 17 matches in 21 days. A highlight was playing against the mighty New Zealand in their own backyard and we even went 5-3 up early on!
“By contrast, 2003 wasn’t enjoyable – we ended up 19th thanks to beating Grenada twice but didn’t really perform for the most part. It was a poorly-selected squad with limited options and various things contributed to a lack of team spirit.
“Mindful of that experience, since becoming coach two of my objectives have been to ensure that the very best players represent N. Ireland and to ensure that playing for Northern Ireland is a positive experience.
“I felt that if I could achieve those things, the performances and results would follow and that has proved to be the case,” says Rice, who has been building a strong squad with developing depth and increasing competition for starting spots.
The Florida golden generation have been bolstered by young talent and although tournament numbers being reduced to 16 means N. Ireland will automatically better that 19th place from 2003, their sights are set much higher.
“The format means everyone plays through to a precise placing from 1-16,” explains Elaine, “and our objective is top 10 but we want to have a real crack at quarter-final qualification.
“That means beating Sri Lanka, ranked three places below us, in our opening group game and although holders Australia are out of our league really, we would then have a shootout against Samoa (ranked ninth) for runners-up place in Pool A.
“The order of our fixtures is what we would have chosen so it’s set up nicely but we will need to perform from the off against Sri Lanka and maintain the high standards we have been setting for ourselves,” she concluded.