Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Selectors look for X-Factor after making Glasgow cut

Title chase: Graduates and Larkfield will be two of the main threats to Belfast Ladies this season

Their former international team-mate Andrea Magee is performing on The X-Factor and Northern Ireland's leading netballers are starting important auditions of their own.

Official confirmation that the girls in green have qualified for the Commonwealth Games for the first time ever has created a big buzz in local circles going into the new domestic season.

"Qualification is determined on world ranking and it was out of our own hands after finishing third in June's European Championships, so confirmation that we'd made the cut came as a real relief," admits top-class centre Caroline O'Hanlon.

"It would have been a very big blow if we'd been edged out, for the Commonwealths are the nearest thing netball has to the Olympics and taking part in Glasgow 2014 would be a huge highlight in all our careers."

Although an automatic choice in the green dress for many years, the 29-year-old veteran of two World Cups isn't taking personal participation for granted.

New national coach, New Zealander Kate Carpenter held her first trials last Saturday and O'Hanlon says the fight for places in the Commonwealths squad will also add an extra edge to the Premier League.

"Commonwealth qualification is a big boost for the sport here which should help showcase the domestic competitions, plus there's real incentive for players to impress personally in the coming months.

"None of us can count chickens so far in advance but, like every aspiring player, I want to be there. I've been fortunate enough to play international netball for over a decade but this is something new."

Having captained Carrickcruppen to the Armagh Championship in ladies gaelic last month, Larkfield's long-serving skipper O'Hanlon is hungry for fresh success in club netball.

"We've gone three years without a trophy since winning the double in 2010 but, with a strengthened squad, there is renewed confidence we can compete for silverware this season."

Lisburn's Larkfield are boosted by the return from maternity leave of Lisa Bowman and a fit-again Neamh Woods after a long lay-off, while new international Nordia Masters has joined from Laganside.

O'Hanlon's side should get under way with a victory against Donaghadee, with the Belfast 'Big Two' also odds-on favourites to start with wins tonight in what is likely to be a three-horse race.

Champions Belfast Ladies begin their defence against Laganside with high hopes that the young guns who impressed last term will keep progressing, though Ciara Crosbie is off to university in England.

The previous season's double winners, Graduates, welcome back experienced coach Madeline Mason, who had taken a year out following a close family bereavement.

Although they eventually won the Senior Cup final against a depleted Belfast Ladies last April, Graduates underachieved considering their all-international line-up and lacked clear leadership in spite of such experience in their ranks.

Their former Northern Ireland captain Bronagh McAfee, the Ryan Giggs of Premier League netball, has generously stepped down from first team duty at the age of 39 to give Northern Ireland Under-21 captain Niamh Cooper a better chance of Commonwealths selection.

Star-studded Graduates open up with a straightforward assignment against outsiders Dromore, while Westside play Banbridge in a clash of two other recently promoted teams.

Although the Irish League football-style top half split format has been scrapped, Causeway will want to be top four regulars and are expected to beat Bangor on the opening night in what promises to be an entertaining affair.

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