NICOLA McCleery is under no illusions about just how important next weekend’s Netball World Cup Qualifying tournament is for the Scottish Thistles. To miss out on qualification for her sport’s biggest event would be a devastating blow but the 22-year-old has a number of reasons to feel confident.

First, the Scots will be on home soil, with the three-day qualifying tournament beginning in Perth on Friday. And second, the Scots are up against Wales and Northern Ireland, both of whom can be beaten, McCleery believes. This is despite the fact that going by the world rankings, Scotland should be the underdog – the Scots are ranked 11th in comparison to Northern Ireland in eighth and Wales in ninth.

Much of this confidence is as a result of Scotland’s impressive performance at Netball Europe last October where the team finished third, defeating Wales before losing to Northern Ireland by only one point in their final match.

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While McCleery, who is one of the Sunday Herald’s ‘Six to Follow’, believes the Scots can emerge victorious next weekend, with so much riding on the outcome, she is in no doubt as to just how tight the matches could be.

“If we don’t qualify for the World Cup, it’ll be a disaster,” she admits. “This is a must-win event for us. It’s actually a must-win tournament for all three teams and that makes it so exciting - every team really wants it. We can take so much confidence from our performances at Netball Europe – that was the best netball we’ve played in years. This team is one of the best Scotland teams that we’ve had in some time and we’re really up for it so I feel like there’s no reason why we can’t do really well.”

And with the home crowd behind the Scots – tickets were close to sold out within a matter of days of going on sale – McCleery is confident the support will give her team the boost they need to get over the line in first place.

“It’s massive that we’re at home,” she said. “I can’t put into words how much of an impact the home crowd can have at a netball game – the noise that they generate can have such an effect on what happens on-court. I’ve played in tournaments away from home and when the crowd is for your opponents and it does have an impact. The crowd can change the momentum drastically so it’s a huge advantage for us that we’re at home.”

International netball these days presents a huge physical challenge to the players but for McCleery, the more testing side of things is to get the mental preparation right. Like most of her team-mates, McCleery works full-time as well as representing her country on the international stage and this week, the PE teacher will be in school until Thursday evening before she then has to put her netball head on. But, she reveals, there is a culture of openness and honesty within the team that means that every player feels comfortable sharing any problems they have and that can only help their performance in major tournaments.

“We know that physically we’re in shape – we trust that we’re doing the right training. I really believe that we’re one of the fittest teams out there so with our physical side being so good, we really want to get the mental side right too,” she said. “It can be hard though – when you have a full-time job it can be tough to switch off from your day-job and get into the right mindset to play international sport. But I feel like we’re a really honest team and so if anyone feels like anything is wrong, they’re able to speak up and get it out in the open. I much prefer that –there’s no point in pussy-footing around things, I’d always rather that things were out in the open and then they can be dealt with.”

The irony though is not lost on McCleery that she spends much of her time as a PE teacher working with the kids on dealing with their emotions when in a high-pressure sporting situation yet she admits this is not necessarily always one of her strong points. And her pupils are not slow to point this out to her.

“It’s funny because I speak to the kids at school about controlling their emotions but if they see me play or if they saw me at a match with all my anxiety and everything, they’d definitely pull me up about it,” she laughs. “But I tell them to do as I say, not as I do. Even though it’s hard combining working and competing, I like having two things to focus on.”