Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

Flying the flag for Northern Ireland an honour: O'Hanlon

By Richard Bullick

Northern Ireland netball captain Caroline O'Hanlon has been given a major boost as she faces the daunting task of leading her troops into battle against world champions Australia.

The doctor has been named as Team Northern Ireland flagbearer for today's Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in the Carrara Stadium.

The Larkfield and Manchester Thunder centre will join an illustrious list of previous flagbearers which includes leading figures such as Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council patron Dame Mary Peters.

In addition to an outstanding netball career and her work as a doctor, O'Hanlon has been one of the island's leading Gaelic footballers over the last decade, winning three All Star awards and being named Ladies Gaelic Footballer of the Year in 2014.

"It is a great honour to be named as Team NI's flagbearer for the 2018 Commonwealth Games," she commented.

"I was shocked to be selected from what is a fantastic group of athletes here on the Gold Coast. It is a real privilege and I look forward to leading the team into the Carrara Stadium to join with some of the world's leading athletes in a celebration of sport.

"The next couple of weeks will see some great competition and I look forward to a successful Games for Team NI."

Northern Ireland's netballers face a baptism of fire when they take on hosts Australia tomorrow in front of a capacity crowd of over 5,000 on the opening night of action at Gold Coast 2018.

World champions and defending Commonwealth gold medallists, the awesome Aussies are top seeds and hot favourites for a second successive crown.

It will be an unforgettable experience for the girls in green but the inevitable outcome against this physically imposing, fully professional side won't define their Gold Coast campaign.

The top 12 netballing nations are all Commonwealth countries so Elaine Rice's side will face six tough games in eight days, though at least their fixtures fall favourably.

The teams are split into two groups of six with the top two in each making the semi-finals and the rest ending with a classification fixture against the corresponding side in the other pool.

Northern Ireland achieved a superb seventh place on their first Commonwealths appearance at Glasgow 2014 and have recently reached an all-time high of eighth in the world rankings.

An outstandingly successful last 12 months has secured unprecedented profile for the team but brought heightened expectations of finishing fourth or better in their group.

After the glamour game against Australia, Northern Ireland will have a crack at upsetting South Africa on Saturday, their most realistic chance of breaking into the top six.

Eclipsing Caribbean giants Jamaica on Sunday should be beyond Northern Ireland but they then have a rest day before the crunch clashes against beatable Barbados and Fiji.

Those sides have traditionally been above Northern Ireland in the pecking order but the girls in green have beaten both in the past year and will be backing themselves to do so again.

Beating Barbados in last June's Quad Series final clinched NI's tickets to the Gold Coast and they defeated Fiji in a one-off Test as well as in October's European Championships.

Rice's crew claimed silver medals at the Euros with wins over Wales and Scotland and subsequently qualified for next year's World Cup before being honoured at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.

World-class centre O'Hanlon, one of nine survivors from Glasgow 2014, captains a strong squad which includes star shooter Lisa Bowman in spite of fitness fears.

Bowman missed January's European regional qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup after tearing ankle ligaments but made her British SuperLeague comeback for Team Northumbria last month.

Northern Ireland concluded their warm-up programme by beating the Tasmanian state side in Hobart last Saturday with all of the squad getting court time.

NORTHERN IRELAND (squad): Caroline O'Hanlon (capt), Lisa Bowman, Kyla Bowman, Michelle Drayne, Neamh Woods (all Larkfield), Fionnuala Toner, Noleen Lennon, Gemma Gibney, Oonagh McCullough, Lisa McCaffrey (all Belfast Ladies), Niamh Cooper, Michelle Magee (both Kingsway).

Belfast Telegraph

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