Irvine’s efforts fall just short

Jordanstown's Hannah Irvine
Jordanstown's Hannah Irvine

There were mixed feelings for vice-captain Hannah Irvine after Northern Ireland’s netballers fell just short of what would have been their greatest ever victory in Cape Town.

The girls in green came heroically close to taking the famous scalp of South Africa in a thrilling third Test and came away with their heads held high even though the 58-52 defeat sealed a series whitewash.

Beating the world’s fifth ranked nation in their own backyard was always going to be a daunting task – and the scale of the challenge quickly became apparent in the very first minute of the series opener.

South Africa netted three times in the opening 60 seconds as the shell-shocked girls in green struggled to come to terms with the Proteas’ pace and intensity, but the tourists showed character in quickly adjusting.

From 6-1 down in the fourth minute, they actually outscored their hosts in the remainder of the first quarter, though South Africa, fresh from a Test victory in netball-mad Jamaica, went on to triumph 61-37.

It was a similar scoreline the following evening, with the home team’s 66-42 success exactly equalling the victory margin in the opening encounter.

Identifying the third Test as Northern Ireland’s best chance of causing an upset, the double World Cup winning Aussie supremo put all her eggs in that basket and targeted the final fixture of the tour.

Jordanstown woman Irvine was among several leading lights left out of the starting line-up to keep them fresh for the next night, though the big guns came on at half-time and Northern Ireland finished strongly to take momentum into the series finale.

Although the gallant greens couldn’t quite get over the line, McIntosh’s strategy was vindicated as her strongest seven threw everything at South Africa for the full hour with not a single substitution being made.

Northern Ireland earned real respect from the South African crowd and opponents alike for a superb performance which had them ahead in the first quarter and only a single goal down at half-time.

The third quarter effectively cost the tourists the match as a South African surge took them nine goals clear but that was reduced to a mere three twice in the final period as the underdogs deep.

But South Africa weathered the storm and, as at last summer’s World Cup in Singapore when they edged Northern Ireland 46-41, a stunning upset was narrowly averted.

The final Test was a ninth match in 10 days for several Northern Ireland players who had also featured for the Irish Students team that finished a fantastic fourth in the inaugural World University Championships.

Managed by former Northern Ireland captain Bronagh McAfee from Glengormley, the Irish actually created more chances in the semi-final than top seeds Great Britain but wasteful shooting saw them go down 53-49 to the team which went on to lift the trophy.

Meanwhile, the Test series was an incredible experience for Ballyclare girl Cheryl Wilson who, in spite of only being a Seconds player for Irvine’s club, Graduates, came on as a sub in the first match before starting the second.

Report by Richard Bullick