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Gaelic football fuelling Northern Ireland's Netball World Cup bid across the water

Half of the 12-strong squad captained by Armagh star Caroline O’Hanlon have played for their respective counties at the top level.

Northern Ireland netball captain and Armagh star Caroline O'Hanlon.
Northern Ireland netball captain and Armagh star Caroline O'Hanlon.
Image: Peter Byrne

NORTHERN IRELAND’S NETBALLERS opened their World Cup campaign across the water in Liverpool yesterday, with Armagh Gaelic footballer Caroline O’Hanlon captaining the side.

The versatile athlete and three-time All Star led her Girls in Green into action against champions Australia in a daunting first fixture in Pool A.

Tackling the awesome Samsung Diamonds was the toughest possible start, for fully professional Australia have won the last three World Cups and hammered O’Hanlon’s side 94-26 on the opening night of last year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

This time the result was 88-24 but the greatest damage may not have been on the scoreboard, with O’Hanlon helped off court in the third quarter after a sickening collision which left her lying prone for a prolonged period.

The PwC Warriors skipper was able to sit on the bench during the remainder of the game and attended the mid-afternoon official opening ceremony but her well-being will be monitored and any signs of concussion could effectively finish her tournament and spell disaster for Northern Ireland.

O’Hanlon’s side are expected to win their remaining group games against lower-ranked Sri Lanka (9.25am) and Zimbabwe (3.25pm) today, setting up potential second phase fixtures against New Zealand, Malawi and Barbados.

One more win would probably be enough to ensure another top eight finish for Northern Ireland, who have repeatedly punched above their weight at international level in recent years.

World-class centre O’Hanlon, who was still a schoolgirl when selected for her first World Cup in Jamaica in 2003 and recently starred as Manchester Thunder won the British SuperLeague, is the star turn in Aussie Dan Ryan’s squad of 12, half of whom have played Gaelic football for their county at adult level.

COH Woods O'Hanlon and Neamh Woods.

Tyrone’s 2018 All Ireland intermediate championship title-winning captain Neamh Woods, with two All Stars to her name, is appearing in her first World Cup at the age of 30 and took O’Hanlon’s place at centre in the second half against Australia.

Belfast siblings Emma and Michelle Magee both made their World Cup debuts against the top seeds at goal attack and goal defence respectively, a real baptism of fire for the multi-talented duo.

The Magees will hope to be gracing Croke Park with the Antrim ladies footballers, for whom dad Jim is assistant manager, come September after the Saffrons’ recent Ulster Junior final triumph.

Emma made the dash from playing half of Northern Ireland’s training game against Isle of Man in Lisburn that morning to come on just before half-time in Clones and claim some high balls as Antrim come from behind to defeat Fermanagh.

Jim Emma Magee

The elder Magee captained the NI Under 21 netballers to European Championship bronze medals last autumn and left World Cup camp briefly this week to graduate with First Class Honours from Newcastle University.

Younger sibling Michelle, who won two Ulster Schools All Stars and scored 2-8 as Carryduff upset Bredagh before claiming their first Down Senior Championship crown in 2017, went to last spring’s Comonwealth Games as an unknown schoolgirl but made a real impression.

NWC Magees1 The Magee sisters (Emma on left) at Titanic Belfast.

Long-serving goalkeeper Gemma Gibney, now Lawlor, who is one of five squad survivors from NI’s last World Cup finals appearance at Singapore 2011, won an National Football League Division Two title with Down in 2009.

Incidentally the Mournewomen were captained at that time by another versatile talent, Eliza Downey, who went on to play for Ireland in the 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Schoolteacher Lawlor is from Loughinisland, a village which will always have an unwanted World Cup connection thanks to the atrocity at the Heights Bar when loyalists shot dead six men who were watching the USA 1994 soccer tournament.

Michelle Drayne, now an English-based schoolteacher who is with British SuperLeague side Saracens Mavericks, previously played inter-county football for Antrim and Belfast’s St Gall’s at club level.

She came on as a sub against Australia as did major tournament debutant, Carryduff’s Ciara Crosbie, who represented Down at underage level in ladies football before going to university in Leeds.

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O’Hanlon, Woods and the Magees will miss this weekend’s opening All-Ireland group games for their respective counties but will be keeping a close eye on updates after Saturday morning World Cup match against Zimbabwe.

Netball World Cup 2019 - Day One - M&S Bank Arena O'Hanlon receiving treatment yesterday. Source: Peter Byrne

The NI Warriors squad also includes former Ulster Rockets basketball players in Dublin-based vice-captain Fionnuala Toner and veteran Noleen Armstrong, formerly Lennon, who was skipper at the Singapore 2011 World Cup.

Lennon and her vice-captain at that tournament, Lisa McCaffrey, both previously played gaelic football for Antrim club Glenavy while Niamh Cooper, a doctor like O’Hanlon, played NI Women’s Premiership soccer for Cliftonville ladies.

Bedford-born Shaunagh Craig, whose parents came from Belfast and Derry and both played basketball for NI, won European Championship gold medals for England at Under 17, Under 19 and Under 21 level.

However Craig is now based at Ballycastle’s Corrymeela Centre, which is famous for its peace and reconciliation work, and scored 18 of the 24 goals for Northern Ireland against Australia in the World Cup opener.

Over 100,000 tickets have been sold in advance for the Netball World Cup, which is being broadcast by both BBC and Sky Sports, who are also making matches available for free on their Youtube channel.

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