Newtownabbey netball star Hannah Irvine has helped Northern Ireland make history at the European Championships in Sheffield.
The Jordanstown woman, who teaches PE at Larne Grammar, was delighted to secure a first silver medal on her eighth appearance at the annual event.
The girls in green held on in a thrilling finish to beat Wales 49-47 having had a much more comfortable 49-39 victory over Scotland the previous day.
Last week was the first time Northern Ireland have ever secured runners-up position in 32 years of the Euro tournament so naturally finishing second behind perennial champions England is a high point in Irvine’s international career.
“Getting silver in the European Championships has been one of my main netballing ambitions for a long time so it felt pretty special when the final whistle went against Wales,” admitted the new NI vice-captain.
Northern Ireland’s only defeat in Sheffield came on the opening night against England, though they stunned their mighty hosts by racing into a 5-0 lead inside the first four minutes and generally gave as good as they got thereafter.
“We gained confidence on the back of that great start and I think there was a genuine belief for long enough that we could push them all the way. It was a very tiring game but we matched up well,” reflects Irvine.
Northern Ireland have never beaten England at senior level and were thrashed 87-16 in the World Cup quarter-final in Singapore last summer so this 69-54 defeat was like a moral victory.
It might have been even closer but new Northern Ireland coach Jill McIntosh, the double World Cup winning Aussie, acted pragmatically in taking several leading lights – including Irvine – off in the second half with an eye on the more winnable matches on subsequent days.
Rather than going for broke and probably still losing against England, the focus was on beating Scotland and Wales – and the girls in green duly delivered in what was an extremely encouraging first campaign for the new regime.
McIntosh’s team were 16 up at half-time against the Scots, enabling the coach to withdraw most of her big guns ahead of the Welsh showdown which turned into an epic encounter.
Like last year at Antrim Forum, Northern Ireland’s lead was whittled away but this time they didn’t let victory slip away much to the satisfaction of Irvine.
“Because we’d been ahead by six goals, the draw last year felt like a defeat and although we had to do it the hard way again, getting over the line this time was an amazing feeling. The fact we were able to hold out is a measure of our progress as a team in the past 13 months.”
It is shaping up to be an exceptional year for Irvine, who has already won netball’s NI league and cup double with her Belfast-based club, Graduates, and hockey’s Section One title with Victorians.
She was named Belfast Sportswoman of the Year in March and only lost out to professional cricket star Paul Stirling for the prestigious title of Newtownabbey Sportsperson of the Year a few weeks later.