Hour after hour, game after game, day after day, the Scoop media team has been watching netball at the Commonwealth Games. We’ve thrilled at the flying intercepts and freakish goals, admired the athleticism and gritted our teeth at the stacks and spills. We respect for every athlete here, but there are a few special netballers, and teams, who’ve crept into our hearts. One such group are the valiant women from Northern Ireland.
With a population of just 1.8 million people, limited funding, and lack of exposure to international match play, Northern Ireland was never going to challenge for a medal. As netballers, they’re ranked eighth in the world; a considerable gulf between them and the higher ranked nations. But they are in Australia to take on the best, to challenge themselves, and improve as a team. National coach Elaine Rice spoke proudly of her team, “I guess our girls are tenacious. They’re lighter than most teams, but they’ve a lot of heart.”
Northern Ireland started these Commonwealth Games with an horrific draw, taking on Australia, Jamaica and South Africa in their first three games. Playing these ranked nations of 1st, 4th and 5th in the world respectively, Northern Ireland have received some ugly shellackings. Margins such as the 68 goal loss to Australia would sink the confidence of many a team, but this group came out swinging, time and again. As a result, they’ve certainly earned our respect and admiration.
The team is a mixed bunch. 18 year old Michelle Magee aside, the average age of the other players is 29. Most of them are dual code athletes; at least six of them play Gaelic football, while others are mostly basketballers or soccer players. It perhaps explains their toughness – when they hit the floor, they bounce straight back up.
They’re also shorter than most. With just two players over 180cm, they’re at a considerable height disadvantage compared to the Kelly Jurys and Caitlin Bassetts – both 192cm – that populate international netball.
There isn’t a semi-professional league in Northern Ireland. Most of the netballers need a “day job” to support themselves, fitting training around their work commitments. The team includes three doctors, plus teachers, sports managers and other occupations.
While these factors restrict what Northern Ireland will achieve in netball, Rice believes her crew will punch above their weight. She explained, “They are tough, because they properly like each other. We’ve come a long way together as a big bunch. We meet each other four to five times a week, as Northern Ireland’s a small place. So we’re meeting all the time. We have those bonds; if you hit one of the girls, the other girls are going to come after you. We don’t play over physically, we’re too small to encourage it, but the girls are tough as a unit. Individually they’re small, but as a unit, they’re big.”
One factor that has helped team unity is the leadership within the group. Noeleen Lennon captained the team until her retirement after the 2014 Commonwealth. Rice added, “Gemma (Lawlor) has also been captain, then in the last couple of years I thought Gemma took on too much responsibility, so we took the captaincy from her. And Caroline O’Hanlon (current captain) had really earned her place as captain too. I could name two or three more, who could all stand up.”
O’Hanlon has led the group by example throughout these games. The inspirational centrecourter combines intelligence with an incredible work ethic. She runs and runs, and runs some more. Rice laughs, “I have known Caroline to work nights as a doctor, train four times, and go back to work nights. She is a phenomenal athlete, a phenomenal leader. The problem is she sets our bar very high for the other girls, and I have to remind the other doctors, ‘Just because Caroline doesn’t require rest, doesn’t mean you don’t!’ Rest is very important and that’s something Caroline and I have battled about over the past couple of years.”
For most of the matches O’Hanlon has played at centre, combining with Fionnuala Toner, another tough athlete, at wing defence, and Michelle Drayne at wing attack. Toner is currently ranked sixth in the tournament for intercepts, the only midcourter to take her place in the top nine athletes for this statistic. Toner’s specialty is offline marking of a player, before flying through to take a spectacular ball.
As Rice explains, O’Hanlon and Toner are roommates on tour. “Their standards of each other and the rest of the team are very high. They’ve been roommates for about five or six years, and they can be very muddy little girls when it doesn’t go well, but they put everything on the line for us.”
Lennon is another stalwart of the team. Originally a defender, she now plays at either end of the court, based on where she is needed most. At 184cm, she is the only defender to top six feet (184cm), and will often start at goal defender before moving into shooter for the second half of a game.
Having captained Northern Ireland to the 2011 World Championships and 2014 Commonwealth Games, Lennon retired. Needing her skills and height, Rice managed to coax her back onto court. “Noeleen was captain when I was first coaching and she is a natural born leader. Then Noeleen retired, and she was encouraged with an arm up her back to come back.”
“I’ve coached her a long time and if I could clone her I would!”
Fortunately Michelle Magee, the baby of the team at just 18, has gained confidence and valuable court time at goal defence, freeing up Lennon to move into the shooting circle.
Remaining results going according to rankings, Northern Ireland will most likely finish Pool A in fourth place. This would most likely set them up to meet Uganda, Malawi or even New Zealand for a seventh or eighth place finish in the tournament. While they will end up with more losses than wins, they’ve gained the admiration and respect of the netball world.