Two Commonwealth Games, three World Cups and 100 caps for her country at netball wasn’t a bad return for Noleen Armstrong who only took up the sport because all her school mates were going.
Armstrong’s international career spanned 17 years and finished on a high at the 2019 world cup where she became a centurion and the NI Warriors achieved a top 10 finish.
Armstrong has remained in the game working as the Performance Pathway Office at Netball NI and will have an important role to play as the Warriors prepare for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham during the summer of 2022.
“I started whenever I went to Our Lady & St Patrick’s Knock, I got into netball because all my friends were going,” recalled Armstrong.
“Ann Wallace and June Carr got me involved, I was just the tall gangly first year, thought out the years I got a bit more understanding of the game, a bit more experience and exposure, playing other sports helped with my netball as well.”
“My development really took off in lower sixth when I started playing at Belfast Ladies club who were based at Knock and getting to train with current senior national athletes in the club.”
“I went for U17 trials and didn’t make it and didn’t make it first time round, went back the second year and played for the U21s that year then myself and Caroline (O’Hanlon) got selected for the senior squad going to the World Cup in 2003 in Jamaica and that was it and I’ve been there or there abouts since then.”
“My first cap was 2002 in the Europeans in Cardiff and that was a build up to the world cup.”
Armstrong became only the second Northern Ireland player along with Caroline O’Hanlon to reach a century of caps.
“It wasn’t actually part of my game plan, I had retired after the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games on 99 caps but I had felt I had ticked all the boxes,” reasoned Armstrong
“The world cup was an amazing opportunity and to get that 100 milestone was pretty special.”
Netball has been a Commonwealth Games sport since its introduction at the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur. Northern Ireland qualified for the first time in Glasgow 2014 and Armstrong was part of the squad.
“It was a pretty special moment as it was the first time that we had qualified for the Commonwealth Games.”
“To go to the Commonwealths and finish seventh was amazing for us and then we qualified again for the Gold Coast Games and finished eighth.”
“Glasgow was fantastic, it was the first time and it was new to everybody in the netball family for a team sport to be going to the Commonwealth Games and for netball to have their first experience was brilliant.”
“Also, the fact it was in Glasgow meant so many fans and family came over to watch, the atmosphere was a like a home game.”
Four years later Northern Ireland were back for the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast.
“It was a different experience being on the other side of the world, Australia know how to put on a good show for sport.”
“We had such a long journey there, we were in Tasmania beforehand playing some warm up games which was fantastic.”
“Because we knew what to expect this time round it was a bit easier in some respects, the atmosphere around it, because Australia really gets behind the netball as well, so the buzz around the games was phenomenal too.”
“The netball schedule is across the entire two-week period so we didn’t have a lot of rest days to go and sight see but we were able to watch all the rest of the sports either in your house or were able to get to a couple of events on the last few days which was brilliant because you want to have that experience of the other sports and the different atmospheres.”
Armstrong has fond memories of both the Games she played at.
“Our final game in the 2014 Commonwealth Games was against Wales and they have always been our rivals, it has always been really competitive games and it was for a seventh place finish.”
“For us to finish on such a high and beating them was brilliant, also going 5-2 up against New Zealand in Glasgow was something else as well.”
“Just the buzz around the Gold Coast and being there was brilliant as well, so of the match ups you had against people, getting to place against Australia, getting to play against Jamaica it’s brilliant.”
Armstrong believes in it paramount for the Warriors to qualify for the Birmingham Games.
“Massively so, it is a chance to compete against the best nations in the world, pretty much all the netball nations are Commonwealth countries, so you want to be there and competing against those top nations.”
“It is a bit special being a multi-sport event obviously, netball isn’t in the Olympics so this is our Olympic equivalent.”
“There is a COVID pandemic going on so we are limited in what we can actually do so we are just trying to make sure everyone is as prepared as possible to take opportunities when they come to make sure the team are in the best position to be there.”
In preparation for the Commonwealth games six of the Warriors squad Fionnuala Toner, Michelle Magee (Leeds Rhinos), Niamh Cooper, Emma Magee (Surrey Storm) Caroline O’Hanlon (Manchester Thunder) and Michelle Drayne (London Pulse) will play in the English Vitality Super League while coach Dan Ryan is also with the Rhinos.
“That was another thing that was brilliant for us in the run up to the 2014 games and the same in the Gold Coast as well is having players playing regularly in the Super League because it is the highest level of domestic competition.”
“Being able to play against the best in the UK week in and week out is only going to improve your game, improve your decision making and improve all facets of your performance, having six girls there is brilliant and they’ll bring that experience in and help drive on the other players as well.”
Armstrong explains what her job as Performance Pathway Officer.
“The role is across all facets of the pathway so it’s everything from the academy squads, the U13 and U15 to groups and their first exposure into the netball pathway to working with Dan (Ryan) and the rest of the senior coaching team and ensure those guys have a solid training programme in place.”
“They have all the facilities and logistics and that side of those are sorted.”
“It is an all-encompassing role and it is pretty full on at times, it’s been great that we have this role that is able to focus on the performance side of things and help drive the work the academy coaches are doing, the underage squads are doing and then right through to the senior level.”
“At the minute, there would have been girls that were involved in the U13 squads and are now in the Emerging Warriors.
“We have Mike Bentley involved in the strength and conditioning side of things and he has been fantastic working the seniors and they are spread across the whole of the UK at the minute.”
“There are girls based in England and then there is the Northern Ireland based athletes, so he is working on programmes for people that have loads of different experiences like access to facilities."
“He is also able to work with the Emerging Warriors group the girls that are 17/18 and really accelerate their development at that age.”
“Having Claire Winnings involved in that as well from the coaching side of things so the girls are able to get that on court development to push them on at an earlier age rather than waiting to senior level when you are just trying to play catch up with the likes of England, Scotland and Wales who are playing regularly in the Super League.”
Armstrong feels netball has given her fantastic opportunities and would advise anyone to give it a shot.
“For anybody wanting to get involved we have done so much over the last while in trying to engage people with our social media channels, there is a lot information we put up on our Facebook, Instagram pages and our website.”
“There are different events and courses for anyone that wants to get involved and all that information is on the website.”
“Netball has opened so many doors for me in terms of being able to travel around the world and go to the Gold Coast. We’ve been to Fiji, South Africa, Jamaica and all across the world, it has been fantastic to get that sort of experience.”
“There is all that benefit of being able to train and perform with a group of friends that will help you get that enjoyment out of a netball training session.”
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