​Cullyhanna playmaker Frances Keenan key for the NI Warriors this weekend

29th September 2022
Northern Ireland v Uganda netball at Arts Leisure centre. 
Photo by Stephen Hamilton29th September 2022
Northern Ireland v Uganda netball at Arts Leisure centre. 
Photo by Stephen Hamilton
29th September 2022 Northern Ireland v Uganda netball at Arts Leisure centre. Photo by Stephen Hamilton
​Northern Ireland will look to Cullyhanna ace Frances Keenan to pull the strings in the absence of captain fantastic Caroline O’Hanlon at this week’s Europe Netball Open in the Isle of Man.

​With her Leeds Rhinos side having a British SuperLeague game against Team Bath on Friday night and Armagh’s Gaelic footballers facing Donegal in Sunday’s Ulster Senior Championship showpiece in Clones, O’Hanlon won’ t be making the trip.

Long-serving vice-captain Fionnuala Toner is stepping up as Warriors skipper while O’Hanlon’s Rhinos team-mate Michelle Magee should be available for the derby battle against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday and Sunday’s tournament final.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, the responsibility for filling the big boots of the world-class O’Hanlon as orchestrator-in-chief for the Warriors will fall to accomplished playmaker Keenan, whether deployed at centre or wing attack by head coach Sheonah Forbes.

NI Warriors netballer Frances Keenan.NI Warriors netballer Frances Keenan.
NI Warriors netballer Frances Keenan.

The incomparable O’Hanlon may be irreplaceable but the silky-skilled Keenan is another cool customer with an astute netball brain allied to her athleticism, who has keenly learned from the best and earned the full faith of Northern Ireland’s most capped player of all time.

It was a decade ago next month that a 14-year-old Keenan shyly sat next to her childhood hero for a photo at Newry’s Sacred Heart Grammar when the iconic O’Hanlon called into her alma mater ahead of competing at her first Commonwealth Games.

Thanks to school coach Siobhan McCaffery organising a trip to Scotland, a star-struck Keenan had a ring-side seat as O’Hanlon starred for the Northern Ireland netball team at Glasgow 2014 and came away with the aspiration of following in her footsteps.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Keenan was Head Girl at Sacred Heart when Bessbrook sportswoman O’Hanlon was official flag-bearer for Team NI at Gold Coast 2018, but come Birmingham 2022, the pair were lining up together in the Warriors starting seven.

Getting the nod at wing attack ahead of experienced campaigner Michelle Drayne against world champions New Zealand in front of a capacity crowd of 9,500 in the NEC Arena on the opening night was a big breakthrough for Keenan.

Having just graduated in Finance from Queen’s a few weeks earlier, Keenan established herself as a frontliner for the Warriors at those Commonwealth Games, but the 24-year-old is set for the exciting new challenge here of conducting Northern Ireland on court.

Unlike the traditional European Championships, this year’s tournament won’t feature England, Scotland or Wales so Northern Ireland are comfortably the highest ranked of the four teams, who will each have five fixtures in four days.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Even without O’Hanlon, Severn Stars vice-captain Niamh Cooper, their highest-profile forward Emma Magee and probably her sister Michelle for those matches, the Warriors will be hot favourites to beat hosts Isle of Man and the United Arab Emirates.

However, the Republic of Ireland squad has been bolstered by a big influx of English-born players and they really put it up to a full-strength Northern Ireland in the two-Test series in Newtownards last December.

The Warriors won 55-37 and 53-36 but had fallen behind briefly in that second contest so the Emeralds will be aiming to take the scalp of their neighbours at least once this week, with world-ranking points as well as bragging rights at stake.

The first derby battle takes place at 5pm on Thursday, a second match of the day for both teams, but the Warriors will have had longer to recover from facing the Isle of Man (9am) than the Emeralds do after taking on UAE (11am).

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The only Friday fixture for Northern Ireland is against UAE (1pm) while the Republic play Isle of Man (3pm) but both sides should come through Saturday’s semis to qualify for the final the following afternoon.

It would be a nice double for the Sacred Heart old girls if the apprentice can steer the Northern Ireland netballers to silverware in Douglas while her mentor orchestrates a trophy triumph for the Armagh Gaelic footballers in Clones.

Two of the five uncapped players in this week’s Warriors squad are also county footballers, with Antrim’s Ana Mulholland and Derry’s Orla McGeough having been on opposing sides in last autumn’s Ulster Intermediate Club decider in which Glenavy lost to Steelstown.

There is also a B tournament taking place this week with Gibraltar, Malta, Switzerland and France competing under the same format of everyone facing each other on a round robin basis before weekend semis, a third-place play-off and a final.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Three of the Kingsway side who shocked Keenan’s Belfast Ladies in the NI Senior Cup final at the end of last month have been included, club captain Georgie McGrath and uncapped sisters Olivia and Rosa McCloskey.

Belfast Ladies had already retained their NI Premier League title and were hotly tipped to complete a hat-trick of domestic doubles but Kingsway lifted the trophy for the first time by winning 62-58 in a showpiece which went to extra-time.

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.