Sports

O’Hanlon eyes World Cup prize.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

O’Hanlon eyes World Cup prize. thumbnailNORTHERN Ireland captain Caroline O’Hanlon takes centre stage in Netball NI’s promotional poster for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.

TWO grudge games in Scotland this weekend will determine whether Armagh gaelic ace Caroline O'Hanlon's Northern Ireland netball team qualify for the 2019 World Cup.

Three into two won't go when hosts Scotland, Wales and the girls in green battle it out at the regional qualifier in Perth for the two remaining European places at next year's tournament, which will take place in Liverpool.

The stakes are high and some exceptionally close contests are expected if the recent European Championship clashes between Bessbrook sportswoman O'Hanlon's Northern Ireland and their Celtic cousins are anything to go by.

Back in October, Northern Ireland clinched runners- up place at the annual Euro event for only the second time in nearly 40 attempts thanks to incredibly narrow wins over both Wales and Scotland. They began by edging their Welsh hosts 47-46 in an epic encounter and finished the tournament with an incredibly dramatic 46-45 triumph over the Scots, Northern Ireland's winning goal in both games coming inside the last 20 seconds courtesy of star shooter Lisa Bowman.

European silver medals aren't to be sniffed at but there is an even more important prize at stake this weekend with those two World Cup places up for grabs and one of these familiar foes facing anguish.

O'Hanlon, who was declared player of the match in her first game for Manchester Thunder, has just been named Northern Ireland netball captain for April's Commonwealth Games. The world-class centre can't afford her mind to be drifting to Australia's Gold Coast at this stage with this weekend's tournament the pressing priority.

"With the overall Team NI announcement coming on January 3, there has been a surge of media interest in the Commonwealth Games and congratulations from well-wishers since the names have been in the news," reflects the 33-year-old."


But the netball squad was selected a few weeks ago so the players have known since before Christmas and, although everyone's really looking forward to Gold Coast, our full focus for now is on these World Cup qualifiers for which we've the same squad of 12."


The Commonwealth Games is a great shop window with everyone watching and Glasgow 2014 was the highlight of my international netball career to date, but the tournament this week will actually have greater significance for the future of Northern Ireland netball."


The importance of World Cup qualification to our sport simply can't be over-stated. We just missed out last time and lost significant funding as a result which has made it harder to compete at international level and placed a greater financial burden on the players."


Now her country's most capped player of all time, O'Hanlon played in the 2003 World Cup in Jamaica the summer she left school and in Singapore 2011, when Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals for the first time, with the team failing to qualify for the 2007 and 2015 events.

Not qualifying for Sydney 2015 really was an agonising near miss for the girls in green who cruelly lost out to the Scots by a single goal on a 45-44 score-line in Cardiff in the final fixture of a similar mini-tournament to this week's.

But they bounced back by finishing a superb seventh at the Commonwealth Games three months later, thanks to an excellent campaign which featured wins over both hosts Scotland and Wales.

Since then Northern Ireland have enjoyed an excellent 2017, including clinching Commonwealth Games qualification with two wins over formidable Barbados en route to claiming the Quad Series trophy, followed by the Euro success.

Those high-value victories in Cardiff, including in a one-off Test against Fiji, lifted Northern Ireland to an all-time high of eighth in the world rankings after a year in which their only defeat in ten Tests came against fully professional England.

So they shouldn't lack confidence going into this weekend's crunch clashes which see Wales and Scotland meeting on Friday (7.30pm) before facing Northern Ireland on Saturday (3pm) and Sunday (12 noon) respectively, though O'Hanlon is anticipating titanic tussles.

"Realistically those games could have gone either way so it's everything to play for in Perth. October's score-lines suggest there's nothing between these three teams so with small margins it will come down to who gets closest to optimum performance on the day, who takes their chances and who holds their nerve.

"There's a lot at stake for all the teams and there's great rivalry between us. Scotland and Wales will be absolutely smarting for revenge but we can take confidence from the way we showed fantastic character to get over the line at the European Championships," says.

Unless both teams have already defeated Wales, qualification could come down to a noon showdown with a Scottish side who will have the support of a passionate crowd but that won't worry Northern Ireland.

After avoiding any yellow cards for a decade, they withstood two sin-binnings, including O'Hanlon herself, in a frenetic final quarter against Scotland last October, so keeping seven players on the court at all times should help here.

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