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Elaine Rice returns to helm of netball team as Northern Ireland girls target Commonwealth Games

By Richard Bullick

Published 10/08/2016

Back for more: Elaine Rice returns as international coach for a third spell
Back for more: Elaine Rice returns as international coach for a third spell

The Northern Ireland netball team will have a new coach and captain at the helm when they face Scotland this weekend.

Their two-Test series in Edinburgh on Saturday and Sunday will launch the girls in green's bid to qualify for a second successive Commonwealth Games.

Elaine Rice has recently returned for a third spell in charge and she has handed the captaincy to the experienced Caroline O'Hanlon, who replaces goalkeeper Gemma Gibney.

O'Hanlon is Northern Ireland's most capped player of all time and in April led Larkfield to their third consecutive Premier League title in her ninth season as club captain.

The hospital doctor, who turned 32 on Monday, established herself in the starting side way back at the 2003 World Cup in Jamaica the summer she left school.

Former captain Rice was still in the squad then and the St Mary's University senior lecturer has subsequently enjoyed outstanding success as national coach.

Under Rice, Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals for the first time in their history at the 2011 World Cup in Singapore and rose to an historic high in the world rankings.

She came back briefly in a caretaker capacity after the last Commonwealth Games and presided over Northern Ireland's encouraging campaign at the 2015 European Open.

Since then Northern Ireland lifted the Nations Cup in the Far East last December under Geordie Julie Kimber with O'Hanlon named Player of the Tournament.

However their subsequent whitewash at May's European Championships has left Northern Ireland's place at the next Commonwealths in Australia in real jeopardy.

To be part of Gold Coast 2018, Northern Ireland must be in the top 12 in the world rankings at next April's cut-off date. Uganda's rapid rise has pushed Rice's side down to 12th place in the latest standings, leaving them vulnerable to being overhauled by Barbados or Samoa.

Rice and O'Hanlon are seen as a leadership dream ticket and influential figures under whom Northern Ireland can remain a significant force.

Star shooter Lisa Bowman returns this weekend after being unavailable for the Euros while Rice has persuaded her 2011 World Cup captain Noleen Lennon to come out of international retirement.

Having legend Lennon back is a big boost though Neamh Woods, Niamh Cooper and Michelle Drayne are notable absentees for this Scottish series.

Defender Fionnuala Toner and Lisa Bowman, the eldest of three sisters in the squad of 12, have been named as vice-captains to O'Hanlon.

Head coach Rice will be supported by two indigenous assistants, Clar-Rois McGuinness and Debbie Bleakley.

Belfast Telegraph

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