O’Hanlon hoping to net first victory

July 28, 2014

Richard Bullick

Caroline O’Hanlon’s Northern Ireland netballers will be confident of their first ever victory at the Commonwealth Games against St Lucia this evening (5pm) after facing three of the world’s top five teams.

Armagh gaelic captain O’Hanlon had the honour of first touch in the entire netball tournament at the  2014 Commonwealth Games, but her team is still waiting for a win and it should hopefully come today against Caribbean opposition ranked just below them.

Their hopes of upsetting Malawi were emphatically ended in a disastrous second quarter, Jamaica predictably proved too strong the following evening and Commonwealth champions New Zealand inevitably inflicted Northern Ireland’s third defeat on Sunday night.

It was always set to be a baptism of fire for O’Hanlon’s side with the crunch clashes in Pool A coming this week against St Lucia and hosts Scotland with a seventh place play-off the prize for two wins.

With netball being completely dominated by Commonwealth countries all the world’s top teams are in Glasgow so, with qualification itself an achievement, debutants Northern Ireland looked likely to be up against it.

However when O’Hanlon’s netballers took the court last Thursday morning in the SECC Arena they became the first female team from any sport to represent Northern Ireland at a Commonwealth Games or Ireland at an Olympics making it an auspicious occasion.

Fittingly given that historic significance, Northern Ireland were scheduled to play in the opening game of the netball at Glasgow 2014 and, having won the toss, they got the action underway with the opening pass.

That task fell to hugely experienced centre O’Hanlon, who had the ball in her hands as the tournament’s first whistle went, and her long-serving colleague Noleen Lennon netted Northern Ireland’s first ever Commonwealth Games goal within 20 seconds.

The plucky underdogs raced into a 3-1 lead early on but Malawi were four up by the end of the opening quarter and then pulled decisively clear before half-time by outscoring Northern Ireland 21-8 in the second period to lead 39-22.

Coming into the tournament, O’Hanlon had harboured hopes of Northern Ireland finishing fifth, a very ambitious target predicated on catching the Africa champions cold first up, but well-resourced Malawi were fully primed for the challenge.

The fact they only lost 50-47 the following morning to defending Commonwealth champions New Zealand put the Northern Ireland result into context though the greens still felt they should have got a little closer.

That one-sided second quarter put paid to Northern Ireland dreams of a huge upset, with star shooter Mwai Kumwenda showing why she has a lucrative contract in the ANZ professional league in Australasia.

Largely thanks to Kumwenda, Malawi converted 96 percent of their chances compared to Northern Ireland missing with one in every four shots in spite of Lennon netting 20 of her 21 attempts.

The profilic Lennon didn’t draw her only blank until the 28th minute but was switched to the other end of the second half in an attempt to counter Kumwenda, with O’Hanlon’s Larkfield clubmate Lisa Somerville coming on to fill the chief shooter role.

Malawi were ruthless in exploiting errors and punishingly physical, O’Hanlon’s opposite number – crucially sinbinned late on against New Zealand the day after – being warned by the umpires at one stage.

The abrasive Africans extended their advantage by five in the third quarter before Northern Ireland had the consolation of edging the fourth by a single goal courtesy of getting the last score of the game just like they had the first in a 71-50 defeat.

O’Hanlon was the only Northern Ireland player to feature for the entire opening game in the same position and she again played the full match the next evening in the pivotal centre role.

Against Jamaica, medal contenders ranked fourth in the world and traditionally the strongest of the netball-mad Caribbean countries, Northern Ireland again came up against a giant goal machine, the 6’5” Jhaniele Reid.

Playing in unfamiliar navy and white, Northern Ireland quickly cancelled out the opening goal against them but Jamaica then rapidly reeled off seven unanswered goals before O’Hanlon’s handling started turning the tide.

After three goals in a row, suddenly the force was with Northern Ireland but their momentum was broken by a 10-minute stoppage while the Jamaican centre was stretchered off and ultimately the sunshine girls eased 17-9 clear by the end of the quarter.

Jamaica scored the first six goals after the resumption before O’Hanlon’s deft handling got the underdogs going again but with the gap up to 18 by the long interval, Lennon was switched back to her preferred role up front.  The resulting reshuffle saw Caroline’s clubmate Nordia Masters introduced against the country of her birth.

With the energetic O’Hanlon increasingly influential, Northern Ireland played postively themselves and gave everything in trying to disrupt Jamaican attacks but still unluckily lost the third quarter 14-11 and eventually went down 65-34.

Playing New Zealand for the first time in years was set to be another damage limitation exercise against a vastly superior side, though there was a certain masochistic thrill to the prospect of facing the world’s top ranked team.