Northern Ireland captain Caroline O'Hanlon made her debut for Manchester Thunder. Picture by Mark Pritchard.
NORTHERN Ireland netball captain Caroline O’Hanlon will play her first competitive match for Manchester Thunder this Saturday evening when the 2018 British SuperLeague gets underway.
Bessbrook sportswoman O’Hanlon has joined SuperLeague giants Thunder from the Scottish Sirens having spent a single season with the new Glasgow-based franchise and great things are expected from the world-class centre.
The 33-year-old is the 2014 champions’ biggest signing over the winter and delighted the Thunderdome faithful when winning the Player of the Match award on debut in their opening pre-season friendly, a 77-49 hammering of Team Northumbria. Incidentally, O’Hanlon was in the first of two seasons with Northumbria when Thunder won their most recent title and her Manchester move reflects an ambition to experience finals weekend, when the top four play off for the title, in her SuperLeague career. Her typically polished performance created a big buzz on social media with Thunder fans using terms like ‘unbelievable’, ‘amazing’ and ‘fantastic player’ in their post-match comments.
She is the cover photo on Thunder’s official facebook page. The team have two big overseas stars on their books including New Zealand wing attack Liana Leota, who won a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and is married to Sale’s Samoan rugby international Johnny Leota.
She and O’Hanlon should ensure a steady supply of possession to shooter Joyce Mvula from Malawi, a netball-mad nation who have held down sixth place in the world rankings for some time now. Thunder have been shaping up well for the new campaign, rounding off their preparations with a convincing 63-36 victory over Celtic Dragons but only now, as O’Hanlon acknowledges, does the action begin for real with Saturday’s trip to face Severn Stars in Worcester (6pm).
“Our build-up has been good and I’ve had a great reaction from the fans but there’s real pressure too for they have very high expectations. Thunder have a strong tradition and consistently contend for the SuperLeague title.
“They’ve a very professional set-up with a lot of full-time staff, including on the business side of things, with well established links into the Manchester community and a huge population in the franchise’s catchment area.
“At this stage of my career I wanted to play for a team with a realistic chance of silverware and Thunder always seem to be there or thereabouts but I think this season’s SuperLeague will be very competitive so it’s all about making the top four first and foremost.
“Sirens have three major overseas signings last season and it was exciting to be part of something new up in Glasgow. There was a capacity crowd of 4000 at the Emirates Arena for the historic first fixture but bringing an entirely new team together was a big job. We were pretty competitive but a bit inconsistent.
“I was the only player on their roster not based in Glasgow and it’s the same this time with Thunder and not living in Manchester. Here’s it’s a more settled set-up but trying to slot into a play-making position like centre in netball is challenging so the friendlies have been useful.
“As well as joining a top team, Thunder head coach Karen Greig was a significant factor in me coming here rather than taking up other offers. She previously worked with the current England coach Tracy Neville and reminds me of our Northern Ireland national coach Elaine Rice in her energetic, meticulous approach,” reflects Caroline.
Thankfully Thunder had no objections to O’Hanlon continuing her Armagh gaelic career and she hopes to be back this Sunday for the Orchard outfit’s trip to Sligo in the National League, a match which gets underway 20 hours after the netball battle in Worcester. It will be an incredibly busy schedule for O’Hanlon again this spring though SuperLeague will take a break of a few weeks while many leading lights, including Caroline, will be in Australia for the Commonwealth Games. As a result, finals weekend won’t take place until later than usual, in early July.
By coincidence O’Hanlon’s first home match for Thunder in SuperLeague will be against her previous side Sirens on February 19, a Monday night game which will be televised live on Sky Sports.