TEAM NI: Netballers take centre stage as they make Games debut

The Northern Ireland netball team
The Northern Ireland netball team

Proud captain Hannah Willis will be making history on Thursday morning when she leads Northern Ireland’s netballers into action in Glasgow.

Competing at the Commonwealths will not only be a first for the girls in green but unique in that no female team from any sport has previously represented Northern Ireland at a Games or indeed Ireland at an Olympics.

“It’s a magical feeling knowing I’ll be leading my team out onto the biggest stage our sport can offer, the culmination of over a year’s build-up since our qualification was confirmed. It will be a very proud moment,” enthuses the stalwart wing attack.

“With netball not yet being included in the Olympics, the Commonwealths are the nearest equivalent as a huge international multi-sport event and it’s all a bit surreal, arriving at the athletes village and getting settled in, but everybody’s excited and we feel well prepared.

“We previously struggled to get enough fixtures at international level but in this past season we’ve had the International Festival, tours to the Caribbean and Pacific Islands and the European Championship as well as seven of the girls playing in the British SuperLeague.

“So we’ve had valuable competitive exposure to contrasting styles of team from the different, distinctive strong regions of the world, which should hopefully stand to us in Glasgow.”

Northern Ireland have been drawn with three of the world’s top five ranked nations – New Zealand, Jamaica and Malawi – as well as hosts Scotland and St Lucia in Pool A of the 12-team netball tournament.

“Some sports might have a European powerbase but international netball is completely dominated by Commonwealth countries so this is a World Cup in all but name with all the top teams here,” explains the Larne Grammar PE teacher.

She hopes her emeralds can at least emulate their eighth place achieved at the last World Cup in Singapore, which would probably mean beating the well-supported Scots and dangerous St Lucia.

Northern Ireland defeated St Lucia 61-36 at Antrim Forum last November and had a great record against the Scots in recent years until a hugely costly 45-44 defeat by them at May’s European Championships in Cardiff.

That cost the greens their place at next year’s World Cup in Australia but hugely experienced centre Caroline O’Hanlon is insisting Northern Ireland can bounce back from failing to qualify for Sydney 2015 by finishing a fantastic fifth at their first Commonwealths.

Knowing there is no World Cup on the horizon makes these Commonwealths an even more precious competition for the likes of O’Hanlon and Willis, who will both join fellow legend Noleen Lennon in the over-30s club next month.

“What happened in Cardiff was devastating for us at a personal level and a disastrous setback for Northern Ireland netball but having the Commonwealths coming up so soon has given us something positive to focus on and everyone’s eager to make amends,” says O’Hanlon.

“We should be backing ourselves to beat St Lucia and Scotland, even with their home support, but the Malawi match first up is one we’ll go into with hopes of causing what would on paper be a huge upset.”

Perhaps fittingly as Commonwealth newcomers, Northern Ireland will have the honour of featuring in the very first match of the 2014 netball competition, something Willis admits is adding an extra edge.

“Malawi will be tough opponents as they’re always up there in the top five or six of the world rankings but they don’t often play against British sides so it’s up to us to hit the ground running and see if we can catch them cold,” insists the Northern Ireland skipper.

After facing Malawi, Northern Ireland tackle fourth seeds Jamaica on Friday night before taking on the mighty New Zealand 48 hours later. Then it’s St Lucia at tea-time on Monday with a day off before the final group game against the Scots on July 30.

The top two in each pool qualify for the semi-finals with the remaining sides going into classification games against the team that finished in the same position in the other group.

There are seven survivors from the 2011 World Cup squad and all seven Northern Ireland internationals who played for Team Northumbria in this spring’s British SuperLeague are in the 12.

Including captain Willis, Graduates are the best represented local club with five players, O’Hanlon heads a contingent of four from domestic double winners Larkfield and Lennon is joined by the Toner sisters, Fionnuala and Maire, in a Belfast Ladies trio.

NORTHERN IRELAND (squad): Hannah Willis (capt), Gemma Gibney, Oonagh McCullough, Lisa McCaffrey, Niamh Cooper (all Graduates); Caroline O’Hanlon, Lisa Somerville, Nordia Masters, Michelle Drayne (all Larkfield), Noleen Lennon, Fionnuala Toner, Maire Toner (all Belfast Ladies).