Keeping her eye on the goal

Elaine Rice, N. Ireland international netball coach.
Elaine Rice, N. Ireland international netball coach.

Derry woman, Elaine Rice, was disappointed with the N. Ireland performance which opened her international coaching career in last weekend’s European Netball Championships which were staged in the Antrim Forum.


But the N. Ireland coach remains confident her team will bounce back from the anguish of letting second spot slip from their grasp in the final few minutes of last weekend’s Championships.

The girls in green dramatically lost a six-goal lead against Wales in the closing stages of Sunday’s shootout for silver, with the 48-48 draw pushing second seeded Northern Ireland into third place behind their opponents.

That was courtesy of the bonus point Wales picked up in defeat against England on Friday whereas Rice’s side just missed out on one the following day thanks to the last-play goal which took the English winning margin out to 69-34 – a losing bonus point is available to teams registering at least half the opposition’s goal tally.

England, ranked third in the world, predictably retained their title and remain as far ahead of the European field in this Commonwealth countries-dominated sport as the English were in cricket until relatively recently.

But, having taken Northern Ireland from 19th to 12th in the world rankings over the past 18 months, Derry woman Rice was aiming to build on a stellar start to her international coaching career by guiding the greens to runners-up spot.

Now living in Glenavy to be closer to her day-job as a senior lecturer at St Mary’s University College in Belfast, Rice, a former Northern Ireland captain when she was Elaine McLaughlin, has emerged as one of the world’s most highly-regarded young netball coaches.

Having taken over the reins as national coach at the tender age of 31, she has transformed the team’s ailing fortunes and Rice received well-deserved recognition when named Northern Ireland’s Female Sports Coach of the Year for 2010.

Ironically the low-point of Rice’s tenure came at last year’s equivalent event when the girls in green finished a disappointing fourth in Cardiff after being beaten by the Scots and Welsh as well as perennial winners England.

A few months earlier, Rice had guided Northern Ireland to a first-ever international trophy triumph when they lifted the prestigious, cross-continental Nations Cup in Singapore, thanks to winning six games out of six including four against teams higher up the world rankings.

Then last June, Northern Ireland bounced back from that underwhelming Euro campaign to beat Celtic cousins Scotland and Wales at the regional qualifier for this summer’s World Cup finals in Singapore to book their place in the showcase tournament for the first time since participating numbers were reduced.

This time around, Northern Ireland got off to a strong start in beating their former bogey team Scotland 50-40 and, although overcoming England always looked like a bridge too far, they seemed to have done the hard work against Wales before, frustratingly, throwing victory away at the death.

However, the coach is convinced this chastening experience will stand to her talented team and that in a similar situation the same thing won’t happen again. They’ll learn lessons from it and the hurt will drive them to work even harder between now and July’s Singapore showcase.

“What happened was bitterly disappointing and a big blow to our pride but there’s a lot of character in the group and I’ve no doubt we’ll bounce back from this,” vows Rice.

“The girls are gutted, but it’s better having happened here than at the World Cup. We shouldn’t have lost a lead like that but we’ll learn lessons from it and be all the stronger as a result rather than letting it undermine our confidence.

“We’ve come a long way in the past two years and this disappointment doesn’t invalidate the progress that has been made. It’s sickening to lose like that, but we won well against Scotland and had got ourselves into a winning position against Wales so it was a worthwhile weekend.

“In itself this competition was very useful as it’s this type of exposure to pressure situations that we lack. So although Sunday was painful it was also very valuable as a learning experience for all of us and enjoyable to play at home for the first time in more than four years. We got great support and that made the occasion special.

“Not finishing with the win was a setback but we were whitewashed at last year’s Europeans and responded by beating both Scotland and Wales a couple of months later to clinch our World Cup place so I don’t think there will be much damage done or long-term scars after we’ve licked our wounds for a few days,” she insists.