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O’Hanlon focused on crunch clashes

Richard Bullick

Being Team NI’s official flag-bearer for last Wednesday’s opening ceremony of Gold Coast 2018 was a huge honour for remarkable Bessbrook sportswoman Caroline O’Hanlon, but for now her full focus is on netting success on court at the Commonwealth Games.

Northern Ireland captain O’Hanlon and her girls in green go into the crunch clash with Barbados in the early hours of tomorrow (Tue) morning still searching for their first victory of the netball tournament after three exceptionally tough fixtures.

They were proverbial lambs to the slaughter against world champions Australia on opening night last Thursday and then experienced double defeat at the weekend, falling short against fifth seeds South Africa before predictably losing to Caribbean giants Jamaica.

But beating Barbados and then Fiji in their final group game tomorrow would guarantee Northern Ireland a top eight finish at Gold Coast, in line with their ranking, with the chance on Thursday to emulate the superb seventh place claimed at Glasgow 2014.

O’Hanlon’s side secured their tickets to Australia by beating Barbados 35-33 in last June’s Quad Series tournament final in Lisburn and they defeated Fiji in a one-off Test played in Cardiff last October alongside the European Championships.

However both Barbados and Fiji are countries with a wonderful netball tradition who have always been above Northern Ireland in the world rankings until the outstanding success Elaine Rice’s team have enjoyed over the past 12 months.

Two wins would put Northern Ireland into the seventh place play-off, in which they would likely face a formidable Malawi team which has been edged out of their expected top six berth by powerful fellow African outfit Uganda.

The national netball team is an immense source of pride in both African countries, reflected by the fact that their respective flag-bearers were O’Hanlon’s fellow British SuperLeague netball stars, her Manchester Thunder team-mate Joyce Mvula from Malawi and Ugandan giant Peace Proscovia of Loughborough Lightning.

Malawi have often found themselves above better-resourced rivals South Africa at fifth in the world rankings and even finishing seventh at Gold Coast, after losing that bruising battle with Uganda 54-52, will be regarded as failure for them.

There was widespread pride and delight locally and in Armagh gaelic games circles when Orchard ladies football ace O’Hanlon was chosen for the much-coveted ceremonial role of flag-bearer for Team NI.

It was a magical moment for the beaming 33-year-old doctor as she led the entire Northern Ireland team of 90 competitors from 13 different sports into the packed Carrara Stadium in front of a crowd of some 35,000 and a worldwide television audience estimated at 1.5 billion.

Being given the highest honour for any Commonwealth Games team member was undeniably deserved recognition for an outstanding sportswoman who will now have her place in history after joining a select group of flag-bearers headed by Dame Mary Peters.

Hard on the heels of the excitement of their captain carrying the flag at the opening ceremony, Northern Ireland’s netballers found themselves taking centre stage again some 24 hours later.

Their worst nightmare almost materialised as the awesome Aussie Diamonds sparkled in the opening game of their title defence, showing why they are the best team in the world with a dazzling display which thrilled a capacity crowd of over 5000 as they thrashed Rice’s side 94-26.

As the Aussies cut loose there were real fears that their tally of goals could reach the century mark but the gallant greens dug deep in the last quarter to avoid that ignominious milestone, some good defence complemented by holding the ball a bit better when in possession.

With the match being televised live in the prime-time evening slot, the Commonwealth hosts were naturally keen to put their best foot forward and never relented at any stage of what was a highly-impressive performance from the fully professional Aussies, who are hot favourites to repeat their gold medal triumph at Glasgow 2014.

Even though NI are ranked eighth in the world, there was always a danger that this opening game could feel like women against girls given the physical superiority and sheer quality of this Aussie squad, who are in a different league to most teams.

Many would have expected Australia to run up a cricket score against comparative minnows Northern Ireland and they built the base by racing into an ominous 24-9 lead at the end of the first quarter, futher extended to 44-15 at half-time.

Australia dominated even more during the third period, when they had the ball for just over 10 minutes, and were 71-20 ahead by the last break before adding 14 goals by the mid-point of the final quarter, making a three-figure score a real possibility, but Northern Ireland somehow stemmed the tide.

With the outcome never in doubt, coach Rice rung the changes for each quarter in giving all 12 of her squad significant court-time, having a look at a number of permutations and letting everyone have a taste of an unforgettable albeit chastening experience.

However this inevitable beating by the best in the business was never going to define Northern Ireland’s tournament and captain O’Hanlon, the only player on court for the full hour, was fairly philosophical afterwards.

“Australia are exceptionally professional, they execute basic almost to perfection, are superb physically, possess lots of flair and having outstanding shooting stats.  Caitlin Thwaites, who has to bench behind their captain Caitlin Bassett came on at half-time and nailed 39 from 39!

“The pundits suggest that they have more squad depth than ever before, so all their players are really fighting for starting spots as well as the understandable desire to put on a great show as hosts on opening night.

“We were outclassed in many areas and there’s no shame in that as such but we felt we should have been able to respond to the multitude of difficult challenges a little more effectively,” she said.

Against South Africa, Northern Ireland fell away badly at the end of the first quarter to trail 13-7 but scored five of the first six goals in the second to prompt Proteas boss Norma Plummer, an Aussie who briefly coached NI earlier this decade, to send on the great Erin Burger to counter O’Hanlon’s influence in mid-court.

Burger, who plays professionally in Australia’s domestic competition, was Player of the Tournament at the 2011 World Cup and has recently become South Africa’s first cap centurion in international netball.

Her introduction had the desired effect but Northern Ireland still won the quarter and the fact the girls in green edged the possession stats for each of the last three periods reflects an impressive performance from the underdogs but frustrating failure to capitalise.

Northern Ireland actually created more chances than Glasgow 2014 bronze medallists Jamaica on Sunday but trailed 17-11 after the opening quarter thanks to respective conversion percentages of 100 and 61, though the fact both opposition shooters are 6’5” was an obvious benefit for them.

A similar scoreline in the second quarter widened the gap to 35-22 at halt-fime and it was 56-33 by the last break, prompting Rice to give O’Hanlon her first rest of the tournament with more important tests to come.  Jamaica capitalised in pulling away for a final result of 79-41.

“We knew upsetting South Africa was our most realistic chance of going one better than at Glasgow 2014 by breaking into the top six and, although underdogs who have never beaten them in nine attempts, we have pushed them hard in the past.

“I think neutrals would agree that we matched them in many aspects of the game and actually did dominate at times but we weren’t able to turn that into sufficient scoreboard reward, which was frustrating for us.

“Jamaica are the Caribbean’s best team and they’d already won against South Africa so beating them was a longer shot and it proved a bridge too far but again there were positives to take and playing these sides should be beneficial for our development moving forward. 

“You always want to push upwards but Barbados and Fiji were always going to be our most important matches in this first phase, which we must win or be left feeling we’ve gone backwards.  They’ll be tough games but we’ll be backing ourselves to get the job done,” vowed Caroline.