O’Hanlon set to dazzle Croker crowd
By Richard Bullick
Armagh’s magnificent midfielder Caroline O’Hanlon can underline her status as arguably the best player in the country on the fittingly grand stage of Croke Park on All Ireland ladies finals day.
All eyes will be on the 28-year-old Carrickcruppen captain, who will be making her first appearance at headquarters since the senior final of 2006 and only her third in all, when Armagh take on Waterford in Sunday’s intermediate decider (TG4, 2pm).
She won player of the match in the semi-final against Longford and few would bet against a repeat performance in the showpiece – which would probably be enough to secure a richly-deserved second All Star.
Although Armagh have struggled in the past few seasons, O’Hanlon has maintained her high personal standards and was named Player of the Tournament as Ulster regained the inter-pro title earlier this year.
A big game player, the iconic Croke Park stage should bring out the best in O’Hanlon, who doubles up as a world-class net-baller with more than 50 caps for Northern Ireland.
Back in May she starred as the girls in green secured runners-up place for the first time ever at the European Championships, having won the player of the tournament award at the 2010 event and inspired Northern Ireland to the quarter-finals of last year’s World Cup.
The Craigavon Hospital doctor is at least as important to Armagh ladies as Michael Murphy is to All Ireland winning Donegal but although there is a danger of over-reliance on her star quality, the impressive performance in the semi-final was a true team effort.
If Waterford concentrate too much on O’Hanlon, there are other players in the team capable of taking advantage, yet the underdogs need to curtail Caroline’s influence to have a chance.
She has a talismanic presence similar to Ireland rugby great Brian O’Driscoll in that both players are one-off forces of nature who have an aura about them and a tendency to come up with the big plays when it matters most, time after time.
Like O’Driscoll, O’Hanlon has justifiable self-belief backed by huge hunger and a ruthless streak, a hard-nosed winner with a single-minded drive which ensures she complements the frequent flashes of genius with relentless effort.
Exemplifying her seemingly endless energy and unflinching commitment to the cause, she rushed back from playing nine high level netball matches in 10 days in South Africa to turn in a dominant display in the qualifier against Down a couple of days later.
The fact the former Northern Ireland Sportswoman of the Year turned up so fresh, sharp and atuned to the task in hand is testament not only to her superb physical condition but great mental toughness.
Astonishingly, she actually turned out for five teams in five weeks across two sports at one stage this summer – and seven sides in 10 weeks stretching back to leading Lisburn’s Larkfield in the NI Cup final in netball.
What makes Caroline’s juggling act, including captaining her respective clubs in both sports, all the more remarkable is that she combines those heavy sporting commitments with a demanding professional life as a full-time hospital doctor.
A beautifully balanced athlete, O’Hanlon’s compelling mix of vast experience, great tactical appreciation, conviction, vision, fitness, sublime skills and physical courage make her a unique asset to any team.
The ultimate sporting all-rounder, Caroline also won blues for soccer and basketball while studying Medicine at Queen’s University. She is a great role model for young girls and a fine ambassador for Armagh and ladies football.
In a year dominated by Olympic heroes, O’Hanlon is our homegrown answer to Katie Taylor at national level or Britain’s Jessica Ennis, and deserves the widespread admiration and affection that those two poster girls of sport attract.
She should have been captaining an Irish netball team at the Olympics but the sport’s ongoing exclusion from the Games and Armagh’s recent lean years have sadly helped conspire to confine Caroline as something of a best kept sporting secret.
With more exposure, she’d be up there in a general list of sporting heroes, not that this most modest individual is interested in personal glory. It’s simply all about pushing herself and winning.
Currently in her 12th season with Armagh and at the peak of her special powers, O’Hanlon remains as motivated as ever and appears enthused by the influx of fresh talent in the team as the Orchard County seeks to blossom again.
Had netball been brought into the Olympics, she would have had the perfect platform for her talents at London 2012, but inspiring Armagh to a trophy triumph at Croke Park would be a fitting finale to another highly successful sporting summer.
If anyone deserves an afternoon out at Croker, it is the humble but brilliant Bessbrook woman and hopefully she will have an All Ireland Intermediate medal to add to her glittering career collection of honours come 4pm on Sunday.
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