Derry woman, Elaine Rice is once again plotting international netball success for a group of girls in green this summer as an encore to Northern Ireland’s impressive World Cup campaign last July.
Richard Bullick reports
A year ago, Rice steered N. Ireland to the tournament quarter-finals in Singapore for the first time ever having presided over the team’s striking rise from 19th to an all-time high of 11th in the world rankings.
She subsequently stepped down as national coach to be replaced by legendary Australian, Jill McIntosh but Rice – who as Elaine McLaughlin captained N. Ireland and played in two World Cups – has long had her eye on an alternative project for 2012.
In the next couple of weeks, the 35-year-old will be at the helm for the Irish Students team at the inaugural World University Championships in South Africa, with high hopes that her charges can at least reach the semi-finals.
Although technically netball’s first all-island side, it will be a NI Universities team in all but name, with no southern students expected to make an exceptionally strong squad of 12.
Due to fairly liberal eligibility criteria, Rice can call on half her 2011 World Cup squad supplemented by three more players who helped N. Ireland to the historic high of finishing second at last month’s European Championships in Sheffield.
The big hitters are led by European player of 2010, Caroline O’Hanlon, who although she has been a hospital doctor for three years, qualifies through part-time studies.
Rice, currently working as a senior lecturer at St Mary’s University College in Belfast, and O’Hanlon have set aside selfish considerations in deciding to throw their weight behind the setting up of an Irish Students team for this tournament.
Given N. Ireland’s success at the British University Championships in recent years and their personal standing in the sport, the pair would have been prime contenders to be coach and captain of the tournament favourites.
With Australia and New Zealand opting out, the GB Universities side are top seeds so the strong prospect of silverware would have been tempting for Rice and O’Hanlon.
But the two proud Irish women have resisted that temptation thanks to their commitment to strengthening netball in this country – and a genuine belief that the girls in green can achieve something special on their own.
The Irish Students are second seeds in a group headed by hosts South Africa – who Rice’s team will face in the tournament opener – and also including the USA and Zimbabwe, with Namibia or Uganda possible quarter-final opponents.
After the competition, the full N. Ireland team, under double World Cup winner McIntosh, will take on South Africa – who edged them 46-41 in a World Cup nail-biter last July – in a tough three Test series.