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O’Hanon set for Superleague Final

Richard Bullick

Armagh gaelic ace Caroline O’Hanlon will become the first Irishwoman to appear in a British SuperLeague grand final as her Manchester Thunder team go for glory this weekend against Wasps Netball.

A magnificent effort from Thunder on Saturday evening saw Bessbrook woman O’Hanlon’s side eventually edge Team Bath 57-54 in an epic encounter of incredible intensity.

O’Hanlon’s fellow official flag-bearer from last year’s Commonwealth Games, Malawi shooting star Joyce Mvula, netted 47 of the Thunder goals while Kiwi wing attack Liana Leota won Player of the Match.

But this pulsating semi-final may best be remembered for the compelling mid-court contest between two world-class centres in Northern Ireland captain O’Hanlon and England skipper Serena Guthrie.

Thunder’s reward is a place in this Saturday’s showpiece at London Olympics venue, the Copper Box, in front of an expected capacity crowd of 7500 and live television audience on Sky Sports (5.15pm).

This will be a first final for Thunder since 2016 while Wasps, who eclipsed Loughborough Lightning 74-54 in the other semi having topped the table after the 18 rounds of regular league games, are aiming to complete a hat-trick of title triumphs.

Powerful Wasps will likely start favourites but Thunder have no inferiority complex considering they are going for their own hat-trick, of victories over Wasps this season, having beaten them both home and away in 2019 league games.

Wasps finished six points clear of everyone else but Thunder inflicted two of just three defeats the reigning champions have suffered this year, which is a fascinating footnote ahead of the final.

Of course previous victories can count for very little as Thunder demonstrated at the weekend by beating a Bath team which had done the league double over them this season.

Coming into Saturday’s semi, O’Hanlon had spoken of Thunder’s desire to avenge those league losses and go one better than last season by reaching her first final.

Top of the table in early April, Thunder had gone off the boil badly with three defeats in four fixtures before fighting from behind for a narrow away win at Surrey Storm which clinched runners-up place.

That earned the Manchester side a home semi-final in front of their passionate supporters at the Thunderdome but it was an understandably nervous start by the hosts as they fell four goals behind on five occasions in the opening period.

A combination of their own indifferent form of late, being beaten twice by Bath in the current campaign and the sheer quality of the opposition ensured it would be a challenging evening for Thunder.

But Thunder gradually got into their stride to the delight of a vocal, capacity crowd and finished the first quarter 18-14 ahead after hitting an impressive purple patch in the final few minutes.

SuperLeague Player of the Month for March, O’Hanlon had an absorbing battle throughout the hour with England star Guthrie, who has been branded the world’s best centre at present by respected pundits.

One of four Bath players with experience in the southern hemisphere’s full-time professional league, Guthrie shone in England’s Commonwealth Games gold medal triumph last April.

Along with her Bath captain Eboni Beckford-Chambers, Guthrie played all but a few minutes of that unforgettable Gold Coast final which England won 52-51 with a last second goal.

The 29-year-old boasts a wealth of big game experience, has become England skipper in the past 12 months and is a renowned winner at the highest level.

First selected for the England senior side aged just 17, Guthrie is more than five years younger than O’Hanlon and two inches taller but both are exceptionally tenacious competitors and fantastically fit.

Bath began the second quarter brightly, reeling off four unanswered goals, the last of them after a brilliant low catch by Guthrie, to draw level but a breath-taking intercept by O’Hanlon lifted Thunder again.

One heavy collision left the pair on the floor over the endline and O’Hanlon again went flying soon afterwards but a goal almost on the hooter by Mvula meant Thunder went in at half-time 28-27 up.

The television commentators continued to salivate over the tasty tussle between the two warriors in the middle, though there were many interesting sub-plots in this breathless encounter.

With Mvula on fire in the shooting circle, Thunder nudged four ahead on 11 occasions in the third quarter before finally pushing their lead out to five in its closing stages.

‘Sweet Caroline’ blasting out over the tannoy was a fitting sound-track to further energise the crowd and welcome the team back onto the court for the last quarter with Thunder leading 44-39.

It was a supercharged atmosphere in the Thunderdome, with veteran defender Kerry Almond’s last home match in the yellow and black dress before retirement after 11 SuperLeague seasons adding to the emotional mix.

The gap grew to eight goals but Bath got six of the next seven to reduce the deficit to three and the tension never relented throughout the remainder of a fraught final quarter.

The near reckless courage shown by O’Hanlon in claiming one ball in spite of knowing she would be vulnerable to a double hit from converging opponents was a symbolic moment and she hauled herself off the floor to appreciative applause.

With just three goals in it, the final few minutes still weren’t comfortable but the 2012 and 2014 champions got over the line against the franchise which has won more SuperLeague titles than anyone else.

Thunder can take real confidence from winning a tight game against a formidable Bath team and should now go into the final battle-hardened with that alarming April wobble behind them.

Greig kept the same seven players on court throughout the hour against Bath rather than risking changes which could upset Thunder’s rhythm in such a close contest.

However Thunder do have squad depth with three unused subs from the weekend, Ellie Cardwell, Rebekah Airey and Amy Carter all being on professional contracts with England netball.

The preferred starting seven though is packed with experienced players including ex-England duo, captain Emma Dovey and Almond, in the back circle, and Mvula partnered up front by Kathryn Turner, who has now been at Thunder for a decade.

Another English-capped player, Laura Malcolm, has nailed down the wing defence berth ahead of Carter since returning to Thunder from Severn Stars ahead of this season and forms a strong mid-court trio with O’Hanlon and Leota.

Overseas stars Mvula, Leota and O’Hanlon are key figures for Thunder whereas Wasps are more reliant on current English internationals with South African captain Bongi Msomi, at wing attack, the only import in their initial line-up for the semi-final as neither of two Aussies featured.

After facing Guthrie in the semi, O’Hanlon will come up against veteran England vice-captain Jade Clarke in the final while experienced shooting giant Rachel Dunn and imposing young goal defence Fran Williams have also been involved recently with Tracey Neville’s national team.

SuperLeague finals are familiar territory for Wasps but Thunder are relishing the prospect of featuring in northern hemisphere netball’s biggest occasion again after losing to Lightning in last season’s semi and their opponents will have no aura of invincibility thanks to those league games.

With Almond due to retire and key play-makers O’Hanlon and Leota both 34, Thunder will be keen to make this chance count three years after that last appearance in the SuperLeague final.

On that occasion, also at the Copper Box, a Thunder team, which included Cardwell and Malcolm, agonisingly lost 55-53 to a Surrey Storm side featuring four players now with Wasps in captain Hannah Knights, Dunn, Amy Flanagan and Sophia Candappa, who is currently on maternity leave.

Ironically the Thunder supremo three years ago was Australian Dan Ryan with Greig as his assistant and this time the roles are reversed.

Ryan returned to Australia to become boss of Adelaide Thunderbirds in Suncorp Super Netball but is now combining being Northern Ireland national coach with working under Greig at Thunder.

His involvement along with O’Hanlon means all of Northern Ireland netball will be backing Thunder, while the outstanding dual star will also have strong support in gaelic circles across Armagh and beyond as she seeks to add another notable entry to her exceptional career record.