O’Hanlon heads Irish bid to top class
The remarkable Caroline O’Hanlon will be playing for her fifth team in little over a month when she leads the Irish Students’ challenge at this week’s World University Championships in South Africa.
It has been an amazing few weeks even by the multi-talented Bessbrook woman’s peerless standards, with a memorable hat-trick of sporting triumphs to celebrate – but typically O’Hanlon’s hungry for more rather than basking in the glory of recent achievements.
On the last Sunday in May, she was named player of the match as Northern Ireland beat Wales 49-47 to clinch runners-up place for the first time in 32 attempts at the European Netball Championships in Sheffield. Five days later, being officially crowned player of the tournament was the icing on Caroline’s cake as Ulster impressively reclaimed the interpro title in ladies gaelic by winning all three round robin games followed by a repeat victory over Munster in the final.
The following weekend, in spite of having been a little under the weather, she shone as Armagh overcame Fermanagh in Clones in the Ulster Intermediate Championship semi-final – standing out sufficiently to be named in Gaelic Life’s Team of the Week for the second successive week.
Last Saturday at the Morgan Athletic Grounds, O’Hanlon helped Armagh to victory over Cavan in the decider – another winner’s medal to go with her interpro one and the Euro silver in what what would need to be a tardis-like trophy cabinet. But early the following morning she was at netball training in Lisburn in preparation for the trip to Cape Town for the World University Championships followed by Northern Ireland’s tough three Test series against South Africa.
Barring injury, O’Hanlon will play nine matches in 10 days in South Africa and will only be back home a day before Armagh’s crunch clash with neighbours Down in the All Ireland Intermediate Football Championship qualifiers. That is a punishing schedule by any standards, never mind for someone working full-time as a hospital doctor, and of course Caroline has to handle additional pressure as she is such an influential figure for all her teams.
But she seems to take it all in her classy side, switching seamlessly between sports and consistently delivering top-drawer displays whether in orange, assorted shades of green, red and white, yellow and black or light blue and navy!
As well as the four representative sides – Armagh, Ulster, Northern Ireland and the Irish Students – Caroline is a long-serving club captain in both her sports, with Carrickcruppen in ladies football and Lisburn’s Larkfield in netball. She skippered Larkfield in the NI Cup final on April 21, so the Irish Students will be the sixth side 2011 Newry and Mourne Sports Personality of the Year O’Hanlon has played for in 10 weeks – though the more spectacular stat is five in five.
Particularly considering the associated success, it’s the stuff of a comic strip super-hero, though the ever reserved and unassuming South Armagh girl would undoubtedly cringe at such an analogy.
The past couple of months have been so successful that the only real disappointments of the self-confessed Manchester United fan’s sporting summer so far have been her beloved Red Devils agonisingly losing out on the Premier League title and her sporting idol Rafael Nadal being knocked out of Wimbledon early.
The former NI Sportswoman of the Year is eligible for the Irish Students through part-time studies and coach Elaine Rice – who played alongside an 18-year-old O’Hanlon at the 2003 World Cup in Jamaica and as coach steered Northern Ireland to the tournament quarter-finals for the first time in Singapore last July – is delighted to have her brightest star available for the Cape Town tournament.
“Having Caroline O’Hanlon for this tournament is a massive boost – she’s a superb player who has great ability and enormous experience, a proven performer on the big stage whose hunger, fitness and tactical appreciation are second to none,” enthuses Rice.
“Caroline leads by example and is an inspirational presence, someone who is greatly respected and lifts those around her. She has been central to the success Northern Ireland has had in the past few years and establishing her eligibility for this tournament was a top priority for me.”
O’Hanlon is one of nine NI internationals in the Irish Students squad, including half of last summer’s World Cup panel and a further three who featured in May’s successful European Championships campaign. With Australia and New Zealand not sending sides, Great Britain Universities are the top seeds based on England’s world ranking of three, though many regard Jamaica as tournament favourites with hosts South Africa also realistic contenders.
The highly-rated Rice and European player of 2010, O’Hanlon, would have been hot tips to be coach and captain of the British team had they chosen to put selfish ambition ahead of other considerations, but the pair believe remaining true to their Irish roots need not hurt their chances of coming home with medals. After facing South Africa, the Irish will start favourites in their remaining group games against the United States and Zimbabwe with runners-up place in Pool A good enough to secure a winnable-looking quarter-final.
But beating the hosts first up would represent a strong statement of intent and mean Ireland would probably avoid the ultra-physical Uganda – who recently shocked South Africa at full international level – in the quarter-finals.
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