The UAE Netball team, the Falcons, will look to continue their upward trajectory when they begin their European Open Challenge title defence at Isle of Man on Thursday.
The 12-strong squad will compete in two competitions simultaneously; the European Open Challenge as well as an invitational event.
The Falcons are drawn alongside Malta, Israel and the Republic of Ireland in Group B, while Group A consists of Isle of Man, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar and Switzerland in the four-day event.
The Falcons travel after extensive preparation following their win last November, having put in an impressive performance against an Abu Dhabi All Stars team last month in the build-up for this weekend.
“It’s always hard to defend a title due to the unknowns about new teams entering the competition,” Falcons head coach Deb Jones told The National ahead of their tournament openers against Malta and Israel.
“The determination of the opposition to take your crown, the pressure players place on themselves to perform both as individuals and as a team, as well as expectations from the wider netball community, all matter.
“The opposing teams will have also done their homework on the video footage of our previous games and will want to come out to close down the strengths of our play.”
Of notable interest is Cayman Islands, who are ranked 26 and should provide a good challenge to the 25th-ranked Falcons.
“Defending a title always adds extra pressure, but we have turned that into a positive force and it has been a real focus point for us as a squad,” Carly Lewis, the Falcons captain and ex-Wales international, said.
“I definitely think we’re as hungry to defend our title as the other teams will be to challenge it. We are prepared and ready to repeat,” Lewis, who has led the team since 2018, added.
The core of the team remains intact but is boosted by two strong mid-court players and two younger players from the U17 Eyasses squad, based on their performance against England and Scotland in February this year.
Joining the Falcons from the Eyasses squad are Isabel Affley and fellow U17 teammate Jemma Eley.
“To become a Falcon is an exciting experience that will develop me as a netball player,” Affley said.
“It is giving me the opportunity to play alongside experienced netballers and I can’t wait to wear the UAE kit as a Falcon.”
Eley shared similar sentiment, adding: “It’s such a huge honour to have been selected to play for the Falcons.
“I have always looked up to the girls who are now my teammates - I’ve been coached by some, played against others and watched every minute of their matches. It’s so exciting to be taking the court with them as a Falcon!”
Europe Netball are live-streaming their events and all matches can be watched on their YouTube channel - https://youtu.be/OirL7F7hRbQ