O’Hanlon targets festival success

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Friday, November 1st, 2013
Community, Sport, What's On
Richard Bullick The prospect of Northern Ireland breaking into the world’s top 10 is adding extra incentive to this week’s International Festival of Netball at Antrim Forum for local sporting star Caroline O’Hanlon. World-class centre O’Hanlon has her sights set on what would be only Northern Ireland’s second ever trophy triumph in international netball – and it should be enough to take them above Barbados in the rankings. Winning the tournament, which features strong sides from three continents, is an ambitious target particularly with Northern Ireland’s regular captain Gemma Gibney sidelined by a knee injury, but Bessbrook woman O’Hanlon insists it is a realistic aim. O’Hanlon herself was doubtful for the event after sustaining two broken ribs while captaining Carrickcruppen in the recent Ulster Senior Club Championship quarter-final in ladies Gaelic. But new NI coach Kate Carpenter gave the 29-year-old every chance of proving her fitness and, wearing protective padding round her ribs, she came through Thursday’s opening 54-23 win over Botswana unscathed. The quadrangular tournament promises to be highly competitive with three of the competing nations occupying places next to each other in the world rankings, but at least O’Hanlon’s side have home advantage against the Africans plus Caribbean sides St Lucia and Barbados. “I’m probably pushing 60 full international caps at this stage but all but a handful of them have been won overseas so, although we’ve done well in the Far East especially, it will be a nice change to have home crowd support,” enthuses Caroline. O’Hanlon had to sit out the warm-up match against the Republic of Ireland due to injury and although Carpenter’s team won 84-33 without her, the European Player of 2010 slotted straight back into the starting side against Botswana with a typically accomplished display. The last time this incredibly busy sportswoman, who has combined her hectic commitments with working as a hospital doctor for the past four years, was unavailable for an international was when the 2009 European Championships coincided with her medical degree finals. On her return, Northern Ireland won their next tournament, the cross-continental Nations Cup in Singapore that December – their first silverware won in international netball – so the hope will be that O’Hanlon, who captains Lisburn club Larkfield, can inspire similar success here. That triumph proved to be the start of Northern Ireland’s impressive rise at international level which has seen them reach the quarter-finals of the 2011 World Cup and secure runners-up place for the first time in 32 attempts at last year’s European Championships. Northern Ireland went into this invitational tournament ranked 11th, one place behind Barbados and one ahead of St Lucia with opening opponents Botswana the outsiders based on their 18th rank. All are expected to be extremely physical sides, though the teams from the netball-mad Caribbean Islands will play a different style to the abrasive Africans and O’Hanlon says it will all be invaluable experience. “Up until now we haven’t had enough fixtures to capitalise properly on the obvious strides we’ve made at world level but this type of tournament is exactly what we need to keep pushing forward,” she reflects. “We want to improve more between now and next summer’s Commonwealth Games so playing competitive matches against countries close to us in the world rankings and meeting teams with contrasting styles should be beneficial. “This week will be excellent experience but results here and now are important too and, particularly playing at home, the onus is on us to put our best foot forward in Antrim and show what we can do. “It will be a tough task considering the strong sides we’ll be up against but if we can produce top performances consistently over the four days I think we’re well capable of winning this tournament even though losing Gemma is a considerable blow,” she insists. “This year’s European Championships probably didn’t go quite as well as we had hoped so this is an excellent chance to do something special in 2013 like we have in each of the past four years. “We’ve worked hard in training and should start reaping the rewards of having Kate in place as our first full-time coach so it’s time to be bold in our ambition and back ourselves to deliver.” NI FIXTURES:  v St Lucia (Fri, 7pm), v Barbados (Sat, 1pm), 3rd place play-off / final (Sun, 1pm / 3pm). All Northern Ireland’s matches are being streamed live on the Netball NI website.
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