Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

International Netball Festival: Northern Ireland fire way into decider

Northern Ireland's Caroline O'Hanlon makes a pass during the crushing victory over St Lucia
Northern Ireland's Caroline O'Hanlon makes a pass during the crushing victory over St Lucia

Northern Ireland averaged more than a goal a minute in confidently crushing St Lucia at Antrim Forum to book their place in the inaugural International Festival final.

It was an absolutely exceptional performance by Kate Carpenter's team, which vastly experienced centre Caroline O'Hanlon afterwards ranked right up there with anything this team has ever produced.

The magnificent girls in green will now meet Barbados twice over the weekend with the trophy at stake tomorrow afternoon, though today's dress rehearsal is far from a meaningless match.

If Northern Ireland can do the double over the tournament favourites, they will break into the top 10 of the world rankings – at the expense of their opponents.

Coach Carpenter is promising Northern Ireland will put their best foot forward in the first encounter and try to maintain momentum rather than trying to play cat and mouse with tactics or selection.

"Even aside from the ranking points at stake, we want to make the most of every chance to play these high-level matches so tomorrow is a chance to build on tonight's pleasing performance," she said.

However, one frontliner who seems certain to miss today's clash at least is former captain Noleen Lennon after she was carried off last night with an ankle injury that will require further assessment.

The Portaferry woman would be a massive loss if ruled out of the rest of the tournament, but her departure made little difference on the night to a rampant Northern Ireland.

They got off to a inspired start against St Lucia, leading 19-7 after what the coach admitted was a first quarter against a team expected to attempt a flying start of their own.

It was stirring stuff from Carpenter's crew, who played with fantastic confidence, energy and purpose backed up with impressive pace, precision and generally good option-taking.

Captain Hannah Willis was on fire in the opening period, working well with the wonderful O'Hanlon and all-action Oonagh McCullough in what was an exceptionally cohesive effort as Northern Ireland at one stage reeled off 10 goals without reply.

With no Lennon to switch up front this time, it was important that Lisa Somerville could last the full hour and she was still going strong at the end to take the team past the symbolic mark of 60 goals for the 60 minutes.

This time, Somerville scored 44 of Northern Ireland's goals, while McCullough came back from difficulty finding the net in the second quarter to finish with a dozen and an improved conversion rate from the opening night win over Botswana.

St Lucia aren't ranked 12th in the world for nothing and they fought hard to ensure a much more even second quarter though the home team still edged it by two to lead 29-15 at half-time.

With Lennon gone, Northern Ireland needed a strong third quarter and they duly delivered, which enabled Carpenter to clear her bench going into the last period for the second night running.

The initial line-up had showed one change from the Botswana game with NI Under-21 captain Niamh Cooper coming in for Frances Campbell.

Nordia Masters deputised well for Lennon as goalkeeper while teenager Ciara Crosbie can draw great confidence from her final quarter cameo, when she nailed five of her seven shots.

It will be tougher again against Barbados, who predictably beat Botswana yesterday.

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