Northern Ireland have given themselves a tick of approval after a confidence-boosting win over Fiji.
Having built across the Commonwealth Games campaign, their last pool match resulted in a 73-46 scoreline – Northern Ireland’s highest score on the Gold Coast and their biggest winning margin.
They began strongly, taking an early 7-3 lead that was quickly whittled away by an improved Fiji outfit.
An animated Fiji coach Vicki Wilson smiled as her young chargers went toe-to-toe with their experienced opponents and provided themselves with plenty of chances to score.
Northern Ireland captain Caroline O’Hanlon couldn’t believe her lack of luck on a number of calls late in the opening quarter. However, a late turnover ensured the girls in green saw them edge in front.
With Fiji contesting everything, O’Hanlon and Michelle Drayne played smartly to wait for the infringement calls outside the circle and then quickly take the penalty pass. When Alisi Naqiri and Merelita Waqanidrola had their heads down, the ball travelled easily into Lisa Bowan and younger sister Kyla.
Lisa Bowman had a field day, netting 59/65 at 91% accuracy – the biggest individual haul of the Games to date.
O’Hanlon continued to be a beast all over the court. Despite her impressive strength she managed to wipe the floor on more than enough occasions.
The margin hovered at fives and sixes until just over five minutes remaining until half time. Slowly, but surely, Northern Ireland began to pull away.
Oonagh McCullough replaced Kyla Bowman at goal attack at the start of the second half and provided different avenues to score from. Michelle Magee entered the game at GD as Noleen Lennon moved back to goal keeper in a change that restricted Fiji to their lowest scoring quarter for the match.
After another 7-3 start – in the third term – Northern Ireland refused to let Fiji back in. With players spilling over one another, Fiji added to their growing injury list with a twisted ankle to Maliana Rusivakula.
From then on, Northern Ireland were never headed. The opportunity to clear the bench presented itself, but the tide continued to flow in their favour.
You can’t fault Fiji’s commitment, but they’re surely pleased to see the end of this torrid campaign. They finished this game with just eight fit players.
Laisani Waqa continues to impress. The 16-year old moved to goal attack in the last quarter, showcasing her versatility and maturity for someone so young and inexperienced at international level, particularly in matching up on opponents twice her age. Keep an eye on her progress, especially given her eligibility to compete at the World Youth Cup on home soil in 2021.
With the win Northern Ireland have consolidated fourth position in Pool A, meaning they will play off for seventh and eighth position against Malawi.
Starting line ups
GS L. Bowman
GA K. Bowman
GA M. Rusivakula
What they said
Caroline O’Hanlon, Northern Ireland
How have you judged the physicality across the tournament?
It’s been quite physical throughout the tournament. Netball, in general, has become more physically strong and fit. I think that it probably adds to it, especially for the spectators. But no, I don’t think it was any worse than any others game. They (Fiji) must be taking more hits, I mean, the bench just gets thinner and thinner there.
That was your highest score of the tournament. Are you pleased with the form you’re taking in to the playoff match?
Absolutely. And everyone got out on court. The standard, in anything, lifted. So we’re delighted with that. We now look to tomorrow. We weren’t looking past Fiji. They’re a tough team. We played them at Netball Europe in Cardiff back in October. We could face any of three teams probably. We’ll go home, recover and take it from there.
Elaine Rice, Northern Ireland coach
Fiji are the most penalised team at the tournament. Did you feel the game was any more physical than others?
“I’d say they’re sometimes a bit late, but I’d say our penalty count was high and we didn’t adjust to the umpires. Maybe that’s been the case for Fiji in some of the games. I didn’t feel they were any more physical than anyone else we’ve come up against.”
You’ve made the playoff for 7th and 8th – how does that feel?
“We’re looking forward to it. We did our training camp in Tasmania and I feel we started poor and we’ve been building. Hopefully we can play our ultimate performance tomorrow because we’ll need it.”
Barbados beat Fiji by 21 and you beat Barbados by 10. Did you use those margins as a gauge?
“No, not really. We played Fiji Netball Europe in October and that was our gauge to improve upon. We were also aware that Fiji has had a number of injuries, so we decided we were just going to go out hard. If the opportunity arose, we were going to get other players on to demonstrate what they can do because we are a 12 and very much a 12. Some other squads are seven and then add as needed, whereas it’s very difficult to pick a starting seven for us. There’s disappointed girls every day and we’re just trying to build every day.”
Were you pleased with the changes you made? You didn’t seem to lose any cohesion and the margin kept growing.
“We brought players on, we moved positions and kept the consistency. The girls who maybe haven’t had as much court time are as tuned-in to the game plan as those who have been on court and sometimes moreso, because in the post-match analysis they’re doing it with a fresh head and less bias. I was happy they were able to play the game plan as well as they did.”
Vicki Wilson, Fiji coach
On achieving their best score of the tournament
“I was ecstatic with our effort, particularly at the back end of a week of games, the third consecutive day (playing)… and again we’ve been decimated (by injuries). We were right in there until half time, and I thought the change of their defensive end made a difference. “
On how Laisani Waqa appeared more happy and relaxed today
“Well, she was happy at goal shooter, she’s not that happy at goal attack! She gave me a death stare when I put her at goal attack!
On the evident passion in her squad, even in the face of so many injuries
“They don’t ever give up, and that’s pleasing from my perspective, we want people with courage and determination to be better every time they step out.
On what she as a coach has learnt through this week
“I suppose the importance of having utility players to cover a number of positions, and the importance of the conditioning side – that’s the area that’s letting us down. So, we need to be better conditioned, and we keep emphasising that with the girls, and I think after the end of this week it will well and truly resonate with them. (Sawana) who I put in the centre at the end there (with the injury to Galo), in her club side she plays GD, GK… WD. She’s never played centre in her life. But I had no choice.”
On the 2021 World Youth Cup, to be hosted in Fiji
“Well they’ve got an outstanding goal shooter for the world youth cup, Laisni Waqa. She’s almost got an AFL-style mark! She’s very talented. I like that she’s got variety in her game. It’s not too often that you come across a shooter that’s got the moves, as well as the holds – so that’s exciting!”