O’Hanlon targets seventh heaven.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

O’Hanlon targets seventh heaven. thumbnail

BEING Team NI's official flag-bearer for 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 Game.

Northern Ireland captain O'Hanlon and her girls in green went into the crunch clash with Barbados in the early hours of this morning (Tuesday) 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 netballing 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 either a formidable Malawi team or their powerful fellow African outfit Uganda.

There was widespread pride and delight locally and in Armagh gaelic 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, facing world champions, hosts and gold medal favourites Australia.

The Aussie diamonds sparkled in the opening game of their title defence, delighting the capacity crowd of over 5000 with a dazzling display as they thrashed Rice's side 94-26 but thankfully fell just short of reaching the century of goals which at one stage looked likely.

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.

"Unfortunately netball is one of those sports where there's no real way of metaphorically parking the bus or adopting an ultra-defensive formation so if one team is significantly superior that's usually reflected on the scoreboard," explained Caroline.

"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 but we had hoped to cope with the challenge a bit better."

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 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 undermined by frustrating failure to capitalise.

Northern Ireland actually created more chances than Glasgow 2014 bronze medallists Jamaica during Sunday 's opening quarter but trailed 17-11 thanks to respective conversion percentages of 100 and 61, though the fact both opposition shooters are 6'5" was an obvious benefit for them and the Sunshine Girls pulled away to win 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," O'Hanlon said.

"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," said O'Hanlon.

"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.


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