Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland reach for glory with Team Northumbria

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland's top players will prepare for their first Commonwealth Games by lining out in this spring's Sky-televised British SuperLeague.

With the exception of former national team captain Hannah Willis, who has opted out for work reasons, all the leading girls in green have signed up to play for Tyneside-based franchise Team Northumbria.

Northumbria's seven signings include the remaining members of Northern Ireland's strongest side and another international regular Michelle Drayne, who is already based in England.

Additionally, Northern Ireland's national coach, Kiwi Kate Carpenter, will double up as head coach of Team Northumbria this season so she will be able to keep a close eye on her charges.

The link-up between Northumbria and Netball NI should be mutually beneficial for both parties with the influx of signings intended to make the Tyne team more competitive this year.

It is also to Northern Ireland's advantage that more than half of their probable squad for Glasgow 2014 will be getting tough competitive matches every week at such an elite level.

By contrast, there are too many mismatches in the NI Premier League, with the top three teams consistently crushing everyone else.

Veteran Noleen Lennon previously played for Team Northumbria in 2006 but her fellow Northern Ireland internationals will all be making their debuts tomorrow night.

They face a baptism of fire when last season's strugglers Northumbria travel to take on champions Team Bath, the most successful side in SuperLeague history, in the opening game of the campaign.

With only eight teams and top players from around the world, the British SuperLeague is the sport's second strongest club competition behind the southern hemisphere's ANZ professional league.

However the new girls can draw confidence from their performances, playing as the Northern Panthers, in the 2012 World Premier Club Challenge against SuperLeague sides Surrey Storm and Manchester Thunder.

With the exception of rising star Niamh Cooper and Drayne, these players also shone as Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals of the last World Cup.

Belfast Ladies skipper Lennon and Larkfield captain Caroline O'Hanlon have been around since the 2003 World Cup and are big game players who will rise to the challenge.

That pair stood out in the World Premier Club Challenge, as did Oonagh McCullough, one of three Graduates representatives along with Cooper and goalkeeper Gemma Gibney.

Playing SuperLeague will be great experience for young defenders Fionnuala Toner of Belfast Ladies and Cooper, while giving Larkfield's Drayne a platform for pushing her claims.

Northern Ireland captain Gibney is still sidelined by the knee surgery which ruled her out of November's International Festival, so her Northumbria debut will be delayed.

However, the other six from here have all been named in the 12 for tomorrow's match, which Northumbria will go into as obvious underdogs but also as an unknown quantity.

"It's challenging trying to build a competitive team with limited time together but we beat the Scotland national team in Glasgow last weekend in a warm-up," says Carpenter.

"Northumbria finished bottom last year but it's effectively a new team and everyone is looking forward to what will be an exciting challenge."

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