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South Belfast quartet star at Netball World Cup

Fionnuala Toner has been in fine form for Team NI Fionnuala Toner has been in fine form for Team NI
By Staff Reporter

FOUR South Belfast women will be hoping to end the Netball World Cup on a winning note on Saturday when Northern Ireland play in the ninth place play-off against Trinidad & Tobago (5.15pm).

Vice-captain Fionnuala Toner from the Malone Road, the Magee sisters, Emma and Michelle, who also play Gaelic football for Antrim, and Carryduff’s Ciara Crosbie are all part of Australian Dan Ryan’s squad of 12.

Having repeatedly punched above their weight at international level this decade, the PwC Warriors had arrived in Liverpool with high hopes of another top eight finish at a major tournament.

Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals for the first time at their last World Cup in Singapore eight years ago and have since come seventh and eighth respectively at the Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Ranked an all-time best of eighth in the world, they even had the ambition to push higher here and, with a little luck, could have been fighting for fifth this weekend.

However, the Warriors suffered an agonising 51-49 defeat against the tournament’s surprise package Zimbabwe last Sunday in their final first phase group game.

They had a chance the following morning to regain ground by overcoming Malawi, a team which has consistently featured in the world’s top six this decade, and came excruciatingly close.

Back on court less than 18 hours after the Zimbabwe game, the Warriors produced a superb response to that devastating defeat, before being edged out 47-43.

Two wins would have set Northern Ireland on course for their most successful tournament ever but double defeat by agonisingly small margins against African opposition effectively ended their top eight hopes.

Frustratingly, the Warriors had more shots than their opponents in both those matches but an inferior conversion rate each time cost them what would have been invaluable victories.

Northern Ireland’s campaign had begun with a daunting first fixture against world champions Australia, who had hammered them 94-26 in the opening night at Gold Coast last year.

Even the franchise sides in Australia are fully professional and they duly inflicted another heavy defeat on their compatriot Ryan’s amateurs, with the final scoreline being 88-24.

Toner had taken over the captaincy in the second half against Australia when Warriors skipper Caroline O’Hanlon had to go off injured after a sickening collision.

However, O’Hanlon made a miraculous recovery to play her 100th Test against Sri Lanka next morning and she won Player of the Match in Northern Ireland’s 67-50 victory.

After those two devastating defeats, the Warriors had another tough game against former world champions New Zealand and duly lost 77-28 on Tuesday in their fifth fixture in five days.

Wednesday was a welcome first rest day of the tournament and Northern Ireland bounced back on Thursday by beating Barbados 46-43.

That guaranteed Ryan’s side a top 10 finish and the chance to fight for ninth on Saturday evening against Trinidad & Tobago.

“It was a really ugly game and quite a scrappy performance,” admitted Ryan after Thursday’s win.

“We struggled to get in the game early but we stepped up at a couple of crucial moments. When we had to turn it on, we did. I’m happy for the win so the smile was genuine.

“We were going through cruise control and you can’t afford to do that in this competition. We need to be much better in our play-off match, but we are in there and that’s what counts.”

A key figure for Northern Ireland as always will be former basketball star Toner, an accountant who now works in Dublin for Deloitte and plays for London Pulse in the semi-professional British SuperLeague.

Described by Ryan as a world-class defender, the 29-year-old, a key figure in Northern Ireland’s netballing rise, was the only squad member to have been on court for every minute of the team’s first five matches.

If her then schoolgirl sister Michelle was Northern Ireland netball’s big breakout star of last year’s Commonwealth Games, Emma Magee has undoubtedly been the story of this World Cup campaign.

The 21-year-old has established herself as an impressive presence around the edge of the attacking circle, combining well with and a trio of lead shooters.

Warriors skipper O’Hanlon had hailed Emma Magee as an exciting prospect coming into the tournament and the Westside star has been a real revelation.

Smart, fast and physically strong, she has also shown willingness to take responsibility as a high-volume shooter, including netting 29 goals from 32 shots in the victory over Sri Lanka.

It has been an eventful few weeks for Emma Magee, who helped Antrim’s footballers to victory in the Ulster Junior Championship final on June 30 and has since graduated with First Class Honours from Newcastle University.

Teenage sibling Michelle, a student at Loughborough University, has had an encouraging tournament too, proving very effective in disrupting New Zealand’s famed attackers as Northern Ireland fought hard in second half.

There was also an eye-catching cameo in Tuesday’s spirited last quarter, which the Warriors only lost 16-11, from 24-year-old budding lawyer Crosbie, whose action had hitherto been confined to the final 15 minutes against Australia.

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