Super chance for NI netball ladies

Oonagh McCullough, Fionnuala Toner, Caroline O'Hanlon, Gemma Gibney, Michelle Drayne, Noleen Lennon, Niamh Cooper
Oonagh McCullough, Fionnuala Toner, Caroline O'Hanlon, Gemma Gibney, Michelle Drayne, Noleen Lennon, Niamh Cooper

Team Northumbria’s Oonagh McCullough, Fionnuala Toner, Caroline O’Hanlon, Gemma Gibney, Michelle Drayne, Noleen Lennon and Niamh Cooper will line out for the Tyneside franchise this spring thanks to a mutually beneficial link-up between Northumbria and Netball NI in the British SuperLeague, which commences tonight – FULL STORY AT

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 influx of signings should make previous strugglers Northumbria more competitive while helping Northern Ireland’s preparations for their first Commonwealth Games.

The next six months is a massively important period for Northern Ireland netball as May’s European Championships will double up as a qualifier for next year’s World Cup.

With the exception of Hannah Willis, who opted out for work reasons, all of Northern Ireland’s first choice starting team are involved along with English-based exile Michelle Drayne.

Playing SuperLeague will give the leading girls in green the sort of tough competitive matches every week which the NI Premier League understandably can’t provide.

With only eight teams and top players from around the world, the Sky-televised BSL is the sport’s second strongest club competition behind the southern hemisphere’s ANZ professional league.

Apart from former Northern Ireland captain Lennon, who previously played for Northumbria back in 2006, the other local ladies will be making their debut.

They face a baptism of fire this evening when Northumbria travel to take on champions Team Bath, the most successful side in SuperLeague history, in the opening game of the campaign.

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 featured in Northern Ireland’s impressive run to the quarter-finals of the 2011 World Cup in Singapore.

The likes of Belfast Ladies skipper Lennon and Larkfield captain Caroline O’Hanlon are big game players who will really relish the SuperLeague stage.

Champions Belfast Ladies and current leaders Larkfield will each have two players going to SuperLeague leaving Graduates the hardest hit local club with three absentees.

Northern Ireland captain Gemma Gibney is joined by forward Oonagh McCullough and the emerging Cooper, one of two young defenders along with Fionnuala Toner.

Gibney is still sidelined following knee surgery but the other six are all being thrown in at the deep end at Team Bath, meaning half of Carpenter’s match squad of 12 come from Northern Ireland.

There have been discussion in the past about the possibility of establishing a SuperLeague franchise in Belfast but for now this imaginative link-up is the next best thing.

Running a squad on split sites is a logistical challenge for coach Carpenter but Northumbria go into the campaign on the back of a victory over Scotland in a useful warm-up match last Saturday.