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O’Hanlon primed for the World Cup

Richard Bullick

Facing champions Australia in Friday’s opening game (Sky Sports, 11am) of the Netball World Cup is the toughest possible start for Armagh gaelic ace Caroline O’Hanlon’s Northern Ireland.

However captain O’Hanlon believes her PwC Warriors can hit fresh heights during this tournament and write another glorious chapter in their against-the-odds success story.

The giant-killing girls in green have set a high bar for themselves by repeatedly punching above their weight at international level over recent years, rising to an all-time best of eighth in the world rankings.

However, brilliant Bessbrook sportswoman O’Hanlon, who will be appearing in her third World Cup finals, is adamant that a stunning top six finish needn’t be beyond the reach of her ambitious team.

“Securing eighth place again would still be an outstanding achievement for such a small netball nation as Northern Ireland but, because we’ve already done that, we want to keep pushing upwards and are excited to see how high we can go.

“It’s ambitious, but if everything goes our way and we deliver peak performance when it matters, there’s a belief that we’re capable of making it to the fifth place play-off,” insists O’Hanlon.

Victories over Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in the tournament’s first phase followed by beating Barbados and Malawi would likely be enough to set up a showdown with South Africa.

Before then the Warriors will inevitably lose to the awesome Samsung Diamonds, who have been world champions for the top past 12 years.

Netball is a fully professional sport in Australia and the then hosts hammered Northern Ireland 94-26 on the opening night of last year’s Commonwealth Games before a capacity crowd and prime-time television audience.

Northern Ireland’s Australian head coach Dan Ryan is under no illusions about his team’s chances against his more experienced, physically superior compatriots but, like O’Hanlon, he knows that the real business begins on Saturday.

The Aussies will again give Northern Ireland a baptism of fire but the underdogs are determined to make the best of this showcase occasion before more meaningful matches ahead.

After facing Australia, the Warriors will be expected to win their remaining group games against lower-ranked Sri Lanka (Sat, 9.25am) and Zimbabwe (Sun, 3.25pm) to book their place in the second phase of the tournament.

“It will be a privilege playing against Australia, who have been the best team in the world for a prolonged period, but we’re realistic about the result,” says O’Hanlon.

“You can’t simply park the bus in netball like football and hope to nick a 1-0 win or adopt a blatantly defensive formation as seen in gaelic to stop the better team playing.

“It isn’t defeatist to accept that we won’t win but we’ll have our own targets, not necessarily scoreline-based, though obviously we’d like to reduce the margin of defeat from Gold Coast.

“While we’ll want to put our best foot forward with the world watching, it’s an ideal first fixture for Dan to give everyone court-time and get them into the tournament.”

Coached by Lisa Alexander for the past eight years, Australia have won 11 of the 15 World Cups to date and shared the honours with New Zealand and hosts Trinidad in 1979 when the three teams each won eight of their nine Round Robin games.

The Diamonds have lifted the trophy at the past three tournaments since New Zealand’s last triumph at Jamaica 2003, a teenage O’Hanlon’s first World Cup, when Northern Ireland limped home in 19th place out of 24 teams.

Their big breakthrough came at Singapore 2011 when Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals for the first time after emerging from an initial group which, like now, featured Australia and Sri Lanka.

Northern Ireland lost 75-33 against Australia but had won their opening group game 65-56 against Sri Lanka in spite of opposition shooter Tharjini Sivalingam being an incredible 6’11”.

She netted all but one of her 55 shots in that match and 290 out of 296 overall in the tournament, accounting for all but 12 of Sri Lanka’s goals in Singapore to pick up the World Cup’s best shooter award.

“Sivalingam is still there and she’s been playing in Australia’s domestic competition so her overall game may have progressed since 2011, but at that height our aim must be to starve her of possession as best we can.

“Each opposition presents particular challenges so it’s all about adapting, finding a way to play to our own strengths, having a good game plan and sticking to it,” says O’Hanlon.

Sri Lanka finished ninth at the inaugural World Cup in England in 1963 when Northern Ireland came last of the 11 competing teams and are currently ranked 18th though won last year’s Asian Championship.

Zimbabwe have qualified from the African region ahead of the likes of Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Kenya for what will be their first World Cup finals and O’Hanlon isn’t counting chickens.

“To be honest, we wouldn’t have known much about Zimbabwe before this tournament but they’re ranked 13th now and African teams tend to be physically strong.

“I remember back in 2012 we witnessed the early emergence of Uganda at the World University Games in Cape Town, where we encountered an exceptionally physical team who had potential and now they’re sixth in the world rankings.

“And don’t forget when Northern Ireland went to the 2011 World Cup we were ranked 19th but upset the odds to reach the quarter-finals so, now we’re higher, other teams will be out to take our scalp and be that surprise package.

“So we won’t take anything for granted but at this stage we should be backing ourselves to beat these sides and not shy away from stating two wins from the first phase is the target.”

Three teams from each group progress but being runners-up to Australia would mean Northern Ireland carrying one set of win points through to the second phase.

It will see the top three from Pools A and B combined in a group of six with teams meeting the three outfits from the other original section.

In Northern Ireland’s case that would likely be New Zealand, Malawi and Barbados, with one victory needed to guarantee a top eight placing at the tournament.

The best bet for getting a win against would seem to be Barbados, ranked 11th, who Northern Ireland beat 61-45 in their first warm-up match in Manchester last Thursday, though the Bajan Gems hadn’t long arrived from the Caribbean.

Two wins would give Northern Ireland a potentially easier cross-over fixture in the fifth to eighth play-off pot against Uganda’s She-Cranes rather than the South Africa Proteas.

Malawi have been ranked sixth for a prolonged period but have slipped recently and lost 52-47 on Saturday against Wales, who haven’t qualified for this World Cup.

Northern Ireland’s second phase fixtures would take place next Monday, Tuesday and Thursday with the potential play-offs semi-final on Friday and the classification fixture on Sunday week.

This Netball World Cup, due to be televised by both Sky Sports and BBC, will have unprecedented profile and interest thanks to England’s gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, momentum generated by the soccer equivalent just ended and the general rising tide of female sport.  Over 100,000 tickets have been sold in advance.

There is more awareness of the Northern Ireland team too, helped in no small measure by their inspirational skipper’s recent British SuperLeague success with Manchester Thunder and recognisability from gaelic football, and O’Hanlon hopes the Warriors will get good support in Liverpool.

Northern Ireland seem to be a lot of people’s second favourite team at tournaments and this World Cup is conveniently close to home with the travelling fans bolstered by a significant Irish community around Liverpool and the fact O’Hanlon will be backed by Thunder supporters from nearby Manchester.

The Warriors skipper stars in the BBC’s eye-catching Netball World Cup promo video, underlining the standing she enjoys in this sport not just in Northern Ireland but beyond.

Ryan’s squad of 12 contains five survivors from Northern Ireland’s last World Cup finals appearance of 2011 plus a further four who have been to at least one Commonwealth Games in the intervening period.

The three fresh faces are all among the quartet of shooters which also includes O’Hanlon’s fellow veteran Noleen Lennon, now Armstrong, who agreed to put her honeymoon on hold and come out of retirement to fill the void left when giant goal machine Lisa Bowman broke her ankle in training last month.

With regular wing attack Michelle Drayne facing a race to be fit for the opening game, the court in front of O’Hanlon has had an unfamiliar look during the warm-up matches but, with the vastly experienced skipper typically pulling the strings to good effect, the new combinations have really begun gelling.