23 MAY 2019
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O’Hanlon primed for final

15 May 2019 - by By Richard Bullick

Armagh Gaelic ace Caroline O’Hanlon will become the first Irishwoman to appear in a British SuperLeague final as her Manchester Thunder team go for glory this weekend against Wasps Netball.

A magnificent effort from Thunder on Saturday evening saw Bessbrook woman O’Hanlon’s side eventually edge Team Bath 57-54 in an epic encounter.

O’Hanlon’s fellow official flag-bearer from last year’s Commonwealth Games, Malawi shooting star Joyce Mvula, netted 47 of the Thunder goals while Kiwi wing attack Liana Leota won Player of the Match.

Thunder’s reward is a place in this Saturday’s showpiece at London Olympics venue, the Copper Box, in front of an expected capacity crowd of 7,500 and live television audience on Sky Sports (5.15pm).

This will be a first final for Thunder since 2016 while Wasps, who eclipsed Loughborough Lightning 74-54 in the other semi, having topped the table after the 18 rounds of regular league games, are aiming to complete a hat-trick of title triumphs.

Wasps finished six points clear of everyone else but Thunder inflicted two of just three defeats the reigning champions have suffered this year.

Top of the table in early April, Thunder had gone off the boil badly with three defeats in four fixtures before fighting from behind for a narrow away win at Surrey Storm which clinched runners-up place.

That earned the Manchester side a home semi-final in front of their passionate supporters at the Thunderdome, though it was an understandably nervous start by the hosts as they fell four goals behind on five occasions in the opening period.

But Thunder gradually got into their stride to the delight of a vocal, capacity crowd and finished the first quarter 18-14 ahead after hitting an impressive purple patch in the final few minutes.

Bath began the second quarter brightly, reeling off four unanswered goals, but an interception by O’Hanlon lifted Thunder again and a Mvula goal almost on the hooter sent the hosts in at half-time 28-27 up.

With Mvula on fire in the shooting circle, Thunder nudged four ahead 11 times in the third quarter before finally pushing their lead out to five in its closing stages.

In the last quarter the gap grew to eight goals but Bath got six of the next seven to reduce the deficit to three and the tension never relented throughout the remainder of a fraught final quarter.

“It was a great evening with a brilliant atmosphere and a really exciting game of exceptional intensity and physicality. The whole crowd were fully engaged and, in such a tight venue with the drums going too, the noise was amazing,” enthused O’Hanlon. 

“The scoreline was always so close throughout, with momentum swinging back and forth. Everyone was out on their feet at the end and the crowd were drained too. They gave us great support and having a home semi-final made a difference.

“There was so much at stake and both teams put their bodies on the line. It was one of those games that was a pleasure to be involved in and an evening that showed the best of our sport.

“Our confidence had probably taken a knock from recent losses. They’d beaten us twice this season, have a strong team with two Commonwealth gold medallists, and are the most successful franchise in SuperLeague history.

“However, we know we’ve a very strong squad ourselves with the potential to beat anyone so although we had a slightly shaky start there was no panic and we felt very connected and united on court.

“So many SuperLeague games have been close this season, especially between the top teams, and at this level you know the opposition will have dominant patches as games ebb and flow.

“The fact we were able to come through that, hold our nerve and see the game out should stand to us, though Wasps are a team with a totally different style to Bath.”

SuperLeague finals are familiar territory for Wasps but Thunder are relishing the prospect of featuring in the northern hemisphere netball’s biggest occasion again after losing to Lightning in last season’s semi and their opponents will have no aura of invincibility thanks to those league games.

“They’re going for three titles in a row so are used to playing in, and winning, SuperLeague finals, but we won both league games against them this season so we have the capability and there’s respect but no fear factor.

“But just like we were delighted to get another go at Bath after two league losses to them, likewise Wasps will want revenge and feel they owe us, so the boot is on the other foot.

“We’ve plenty of experienced SuperLeague players and internationals and we beat Wasps last season live on Sky in front of a big crowd in Manchester Arena so hopefully we’ll thrive rather than freeze.

“I think they’re expecting a capacity crowd and Thunder have a very strong core fan base so no doubt there’ll be lots of supporters making their way down from Manchester by bus, train and car.

“We’re all really looking forward to the final now and what will be one of the biggest games of my career,” says the 34-year-old.

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