When the Queensland Firebirds and Melbourne Vixens met in Round 1 it was the Vixens who were victorious by 13 goals. Since that time the Firebirds have had major front-line changes off the back of injuries to two integral parts of their attacking unit.
Having now had a full week of training with their two new members, Erin Burger and Lenize Potgieter, the Firebirds were hoping play would run smoothly. They were right – to begin with.
As has been custom for the past few weeks, Firebirds youngster, and the only Indigenous player in Suncorp Super Netball, Jemma Mi Mi started at centre for the home side. Given that Round 8 was Indigenous Round, Mi Mi was feeling a range of emotions as she stepped up for the first centre pass. Speaking after the game, she said, “Even just wearing this dress gave me a little oomph and to see all the little girls come down from the remote communities just put the extra fire in the belly.”
The Firebirds started a little shaky, as the Vixens forced them to pass the ball around the midcourt until they eventually crossed the transverse and got the ball to Potgieter. The South African missed her first shot which the Vixens consolidated, giving them a two-goal lead early.
With that first feed into the Vixens shooting circle, Liz Watson notched up her 1,500thSuncorp Super Netball feed. Her closest competitor in the all-time leaderboard is Kelsey Browne, who is some 360 feeds behind Watson.
From their second centre pass, the Firebirds looked settled, even confident. So much so that Gretel Tippett was happy sinking shots from mid-range.
Tippett’s combination with Potgieter was looked more natural this week, with the pair getting on the move and creating space for each other.
The equalizer for the Firebirds came when their dynamic defensive duo of Kim Jenner and Tara Hinchliffe applied hustling pressure on Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip. In a manoeuvre designed to rid herself of defence, Philip ducked around the offside of the goal post to do a one-two with Liz Watson, but the communication wasn’t there resulting in the ball spraying over the sideline.
Firebirds transition wasn’t smooth as they were met with Vixens arms over pressure all the way, but patience prevailed and with the next centre they eventually took the lead.
Building in confidence the Firebirds began to play with pizazz as they let the ball fly. Tippett was having the better of her battle with Jo Weston, often outmuscling her in the air or finding herself alone in the wings as Weston doubled back on Potgieter.
This was a dangerous decision for the Vixens as Tippett was happy to use the extra space afforded to her to place high, layup passes into Potgieter or take the leap into the post to put the shot up herself.
The scoreboard ticked over evenly as the two sides battled for the first quarter bonus point. Eventually, the Firebirds won out thanks to a spectacular show of faith from Jenner who launched the ball from midway in the centre third to Tippett who was waiting on the baseline. One quick flick into Potgieter saw the Firebirds take a one-goal lead into the first break.
The Firebirds rode the confidence from the first quarter right through the second.
Jenner and Hinchliffe were more settled and coming off the body. The extra space allowed the defenders to sight the passes and pick up three intercepts between them for the quarter.
The Firebirds midcourt fed off the excitement of the raucous home crowd at each intercept. None more so than when Jenner took the intercept but overcooked her pass to Gabi Simpson.
With her typical flare, Simpson hunted down the ball, flicked it to Potgieter who expertly read the move, and then Simpson launched herself over the sideline so she didn’t go offside. The exciting transition was finished off by Tippett giving the Firebirds a four-goal lead.
Simpson continued her fine form throughout the remainder of the term adding a further two gains and one deflection to her side’s tremendous first-half defensive stats.
The Firebirds extended their lead to three heading into the main break but lost their spark at the start of the third.
Speaking after the game, Mi Mi admitted that her side’s intensity faded, “We had an awesome start. Our intensity was up. I think we didn’t come out of half time really well and I think it was the little errors. Vixens capitalised on it and it was too hard for us to try and bring it back.”
The Vixens came out of half time with a renewed composure and executed their well-known clinical style of play. By two minutes into the start of the term they had levelled the score and then piled on.
The biggest changes for the side came in the defence end with Emily Mannix signalling early that she was prepared to go for the fly and win the ball for her side.
Mannix was also effective under the post pulling in two rebounds and one deflection during the third. But it was her three intercepts and five gains that allowed her side to win the quarter by ten goals.
The Vixens midcourt were also playing with patience and tenacity that was not seen in the first half.
Renae Ingles, who had a spectacular game in Round 7, was unusually quiet during the first. But from the start of the second half, she began using her body more effectively to put pressure on Caitlyn Nevins and kept her off circle edge.
The tactic put extra pressure on the Firebirds goalers who had to come out more for the reoffer. This allowed the Vixens to tighten their pressure and force the Firebirds into stressed passes.
The Vixens midcourt were also effectively forcing the Firebirds wide which allowed the visitors unhindered runs through the middle. The manoeuvre also forced the Firebirds into across court passes which were easy pickings for the away side.
But, by far the third quarter was the best for the Vixens because they lifted their conversion rate. During the first half they netted 4 goals from 5 gains. Yet, during the third term alone, they netted 8 from 8.
Add to this Thwaites’ ability to out-rebound the Firebirds defence and it tells the story of which side treasured possession the most during the back end of the game.
Speaking after the game, Watson confirmed as much, “At half time we spoke about our transition. When we get the ball, we need to score off it. We were a bit slow in our transition in both attack and defence in the first half so that really picked up in the third.”
The Vixens continued to build on their solid three-quarter time lead and put the game out of contention for the Firebirds by halfway through the final term. By then the scoreboard seesawed with the Firebirds unable to close the gap nor the Vixens able to extend.
The Firebirds will travel to Melbourne next week to face the Collingwood Magpies in the last round before the World Cup break. Mi Mi admits that there will be a lot to play for in that match, “Down in Melbourne will be interesting. We had a draw against them in Round 2, and they lost yesterday as well, so I think we will both be feeling vulnerable and hungry. So, bring it on, I can’t wait.”
Mi Mi believes that the key to getting the win over Magpies will be in applying stronger midcourt pressure. “I think in defence we need to step up a bit quicker and don’t let the attack get that short little connection.”
The Vixens are also away next week to Giants Netball. Watson confirms the Vixens goals are clear, “Our aim is to win and finish off the first part of the season in a really positive way. We have the break so when we come back, we want to have set ourselves up as strong as possible.”
Melbourne Vixens 71 def Queensland Firebirds 60
(17-18, 32-35, 51-44, 71-60)
Player of the Match: Caitlin Thwaites (Vixens)
Lenize Potgieter 31/34 91%
Gretel Tippett 29/31 94%
Caitlin Thwaites 42/46. 91%
Tegan Philip 29/34. 85%
Emily Mannix (Vixens) 5
Jo Weston (Vixens) 3
Liz Watson (Vixens) 31
Caitlyn Nevins (Firebirds) 23
Kate Moloney (Vixens) 18
Emily Mannix (Vixens) 8
Jo Weston (Vixens) 4
GS Lenize Potgieter
GA Gretel Tippett
WA Caitlyn Nevins
C Jemma Mi Mi
WD Gabi Simpson
GD Kim Jenner
GK Tara Hinchliffe
Bench: Erin Burger, Abigail Latu-Meafou, Laura Clemesha
Changes: Q3. Erin Burger C, Jemma Mi Mi WA, Caitlyn Nevins bench;
Q4. Jemma Mi Mi C, Caitlyn Nevins WA, Erin Burger bench.
GS Caitlin Thwaites
GA Tegan Philip
WA Liz Watson
C Kate Moloney
WD Renae Ingles
GD Jo Weston
GK Emily Mannix
Bench: Kadie-Ann Dehaney, Ine-Mari Venter, Lara Dunkley
Umpires: Marc Henning and Rochelle McKee