FOR almost two years, Nicola McCleery’s Scottish Thistles dress has hung, untouched, inside her wardrobe. 

Finally, though, she now has reason to dust it off. 

Tomorrow (Thurs 2nd Dec), Scotland’s best netball players will make their first competitive appearance for the national team since the pandemic began. 

Over two days, the Scottish Thistles will take on Barbados in a brace of test matches that will not only provide a refreshing reminder to the players of the joys of international netball but also give the side an important marker as to where they are as they move into 2022. 

For Nicola McCleery, who has long been one of the most ebullient sportspeople in the country, she can barely contain her excitement at getting back into the thick of things, particularly when she believes the side, which she has been a part of since 2016 and are ranked eighth in the world, is looking stronger than ever. 

“To be playing a competitive match again is huge – it’s all very well playing friendlies but nothing’s quite the same as being in the competitive environment,” the 26-year-old says. 

“I think the team is very, very good right now and so I’m looking forward to testing ourselves. There’s no point working this hard and then not doing it when we’re playing competitively so I’m excited to see if we can put into matches what we’ve been working on in training. And if we can, I have no doubt the end result will go in our favour.” 

The Herald:

There has been considerable change in the Thistles’ personnel since their last outing. 

Perhaps most notably, the long-standing head coach, Gail Parata left her role at the end of 2019 and was replaced by former England internationalist and World cup medallist, Tamsin Greenway. 

The Englishwoman has brought a new look to the squad and with that, a wave of competitiveness which McCleery chooses to look at in the most positive way possible rather than see it as a threat that her place in the squad, no one’s place in the squad in fact, is a foregone conclusion any longer. 

“Competition is refreshing and it’s about how you deal with that,” she says.  

“With a new coach, you need to stand up, be counted and show what you can do and I think that’s been good for us all because it’s brought in a fresh energy. 

“It’s been a big change for me having a lot more youngsters around and being able to give some advice and help them out. That’s been really refreshing for me because it’s allowed me to show a different side. I feel like I’m able to give back a little bit and the girls are so receptive and so it makes for a brilliant environment.” 

McCleery was not someone who found any free time on their hands during the pandemic. 

She is well used to having a busy schedule, though. 

As principle teacher of Health and Wellbeing at Trinity High School in Rutherglen, McCleery regularly squeezes her training in before and after work but despite her testing and, at times, exhausting, schedule, she remains as driven as ever to maintain her place in the international side, as well as her place in her club side, Sirens, who recorded their best ever finish of sixth in the Superleague this season. 

“Things are busy, but I like that,” she says. 

“I know netball isn’t going to be there forever but I absolutely still have the same passion for it and I still have that drive to go training. 

“I still love it - I’ve always said the day I don’t love it is the day I’ll retire but at the moment, that’s not even an option.” 

With netball not on the Olympic programme, the Commonwealth Games are a top priority for McCleery and her compatriots. 

Birmingham 2022 will kick-off in just under eight months’ time and already, the East Kilbride native and her teammates have begun their preparations for next summer’s event, with this week’s test matches the start of what McCleery hopes will be a seamless build-up towards the Games. 

“The Commonwealth Games is very much being discussed already – as a team, we know it’s fast approaching,” she says. 

“Momentum is a huge thing and we’ve got that behind us so we just need to make sure we continue that.  

“These test matches against Barbados are a really good opportunity for us to stamp our authority and show everyone where we are.”