If a final is treated like any other game – in a bid to quell nerves – there’s a danger it will be played like any other game. And so the deciding encounter between Sunshine Coast Lightning and West Coast Fever proved.
In winning back to back titles, Lightning confessed that they were happy to grind out the win. But for the Fever – Jhaniele Fowler’s desperate sideline scramble and baseline acrobatics aside – the passion and the do-or-die heroics were strangely subdued.
In respecting Lightning’s ball winning ability they lost the free-flowing game that has served them so well all season, and will look on the grand final as one that slipped away.
Little separated the two sides throughout the season. Fever had won both previous encounters, albeit by one goal, and were ladder leaders for most of the year, while Lightning barnstormed their way into the grand final.
Down by seven goals in the second quarter, they showed no signs of panic, and crafted together a steady, consistent game that ultimately won them the title. In front of a tumultuous capacity crowd, they rained on Fever’s hopes of a maiden victory.
The opening quarter was a game of cat and mouse, with nothing separating the two sides across 15 minutes. The Lightning defenders were intent on damage control against Jhaniele Fowler, leaving Madi McAuliffe to apply pressure to Fever goal attack Nat Medhurst outside the circle. It left Ingrid Colyer acres of room in which to move, and the diminutive wing attack took full advantage.
Goal keeper Courtney Bruce signalled her intent to hunt the ball early, leaving Caitlin Bassett dangerously unattended at the post. Bruce then dropped back onto Bassett, but the Diamonds and Lightning spearhead used all her experience and wile to hold position strongly throughout the game.
Late in the quarter her partner, Steph Wood, was sandwiched between Bruce and the goal post in an ugly collision, and left the court for medical assessment.
Resuming at 14 goals apiece, wing defence Jess Anstiss stepped up her work rate in another impressive showing. Her opponent, Kelsey Browne, was limited to just three goal assists and five centre pass receives for the quarter, and it did much to stem the flow of ball into the Lightning circle.
Fortunately Steph Wood was fit enough to return to court, despite aching ribs, replacing Cara Koenen after a brief cameo. Wood was immediately back to her most damaging, stepping up to take centre passes and feed the circle while Browne was well held.
Throughout the season a feature of Fever’s attacking game has been Nat Medhurst’s ability to let the ball fly to Fowler from any range, with pinpoint precision. She was reluctant to do so for the first half of the match, tallying just five goal assists in 30 minutes.
It limited Karla Pretorius’ ability as a ball-sneak but increasing the number of passes into Fowler inevitably produced more errors as Lightning were able to get extra bodies between the ball and the circle.
Colyer and Verity Charles both showed maturity and composure in their games, and were particularly efficient when working the ball around the circle to set up a better angle into Fowler.
The Jamaican import was hugely influential throughout the game, pulling in anything that was lofted in her direction, and landing with pinpoint precision along the baseline. Her scramble outside the circle to pick up a deflected ball was one of the few signs of absolute desperation that Fever showed throughout the match.
Fever looked to have a comfortable lead of seven, when late in the quarter Geva Mentor came up with a huge play that sent the ball whistling in the opposite direction. To add insult to injury, a tough call by umpire Michelle Phippard advanced a penalty from the Lightning’s transverse line to their circle edge with just three seconds on the clock.
Anstiss, tired after her super-human feat in quieting Browne, failed to clear space adequately and was called for deliberate obstruction. The outcome allowed Lightning to claw the margin back to three, and gave them precious momentum heading into the third quarter.
Lightning have had huge third quarters during the season, and followed the same pattern in this match, pilling on 22 goals – their biggest haul in any quarter this year.
Browne broke her shackles, and together with centre Laura Scherian, were dominant throughout the court. Lightning were content to play the ball around in their backcourt, waiting for Browne and Scherian to open, which they inevitably did. Browne was particularly effective around the circle edge, repositioning to provide better angles and ball delivery into her shooters.
However, Wood also lifted at the opposite end of the court. She was brilliant cutting and driving around the circle, setting her space, holding position and turning outwards for the pass.
Stacey Francis was active in defence, but had limited answers to Wood’s. While she and Bruce came up with 13 deflections between them, rarely were they able to convert them into opportunities to send the ball away from Lightning’s goal. Their combination was broken down by Wood and Bassett’s ability to screen each other and play off it.
The resulting four goal turn around saw Lightning take a three goal margin into the final term, which was a bridge too far for the Fever.
Both sides had their opportunities to take the game in the last quarter, with errors creating scoring opportunities. Fever were able to draw ahead by one goal, but unfortunately two crucial but overcooked passes towards Fowler sent the ball back into Lightning hands on each occasion.
There were to be no last minute heroics from the home team, no desperate play that saved the match. Lightning gritted their teeth, played it safe, and snuck home with a three goal win. In doing so, they secured back to back titles, and a rare place in the history books as perhaps the most successful start up club in Australian sport.
Sunshine Coast Lightning 62 def West Coast Fever 59
(14-14, 26-29, 48-45, 62-59)
Player of the Match: Caitlin Bassett (Lightning)
Crowd: 13,772 at Perth Arena
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Bassett 45/50 90%
Wood 17/20 85%
West Coast Fever
Fowler 53/55 96%
Medhurst 6/10 60%
Umpires: Michelle Phippard and Josh Bowring
Starting line ups
West Coast Fever
GS Jhaniele Fowler
GA Nat Medhurst
WA Ingrid Colyer
C Verity Charles
WD Jess Anstiss
GD Stacey Francis
GK Courtney Bruce
Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Caitlin Bassett
GA Stephanie Wood
WA Kelsey Browne
C Laura Scherian
WD Jacqui Russell
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Geva Mentor.
Changes: Q1 GA Koenen (injury Wood), Q2 GA Wood.
Kelsey Browne 19
Nat Medhurst 18
Verity Charles 18
Centre Pass Receives
Steph Wood 26
Ingrid Colyer 25
Kelsey Browne 24
Caitlin Bassett 4
Jhaniele Fowler 2
Courtney Bruce 1
Geva Mentor 10
Courtney Bruce 8
Geva Mentor 5
Courtney Bruce 4
Where the game was won and lost
15 minute intensity
At the end of the second, third and fourth quarters, Lightning were able to lift their intensity. They piled on four quick goals in succession in each of those terms, which kept them in the hunt early on, then ultimately won them the match in the later stages.
The final two minutes of each of those quarters proved costly for the Fever when they were unable to run with their opponents. Lapses in concentration caused costly handling errors, while the defenders will rue their positioning which allowed Bassett four uncontested rebounds.
Defence wins games
Lightning picked off 6 intercepts and 15 deflections for the game. This was in contrast to the Fever, who could only come up with one intercept, by goal shooter Jhaniele Fowler, and 19 deflections. The lack of clean ball proved costly.
Fever had 14 deflections by half time, and then could only manage 5 deflections for the rest of the game. It was a combination of their drop in intensity, and renewed efforts by Lightning to provide clean passes to their team mates.
Forcing turnovers has been an issue for Fever in a few games this season, and they will need to look at how and where they can pick off intercepts if they are to be successful in the future.
Change of game plan
After such a successful season, it was a costly surprise to see Fever tweak their game plan. There was a general reluctance to let the ball go long into Jhaniele Fowler, particularly by Nat Medhurst who had just 18 goal assists for the game. It allowed the Lightning to set up in defence, clogging the space and creating a few errors. While the patience Fever showed didn’t allow Pretorius to have her usual impact on the game, she did come up with a few telling plays.
Fever have gone forwards on their centre pass for most of the season, but in this game just 37 of their centre passes went forwards – a percentage of just 64% – while 21 went backwards. In contrast, Lightning went forwards with 50 centre passes, at 88%, and backwards for just seven.
Fever’s tactical change wasn’t through lack of availability, with Ingrid Colyer being readily available at centre pass. Unfortunately it altered their usual flow of Colyer first phase, and Charles/Medhurst second and third phase, and also allowed the Lightning defenders more time to clog up the attacking zone.
Some costly errors
Lightning were incredibly tidy throughout the match, coughing up just one unforced error, and one pass that was intercepted by the opposition. In contrast the Fever produced five unforced errors (breaking and offside) and threw six passes to their opponents. Add in a few stepping calls and it was costly. Whether it was nerves or inexperience, that’s the ball game right there!
Home court advantage
Home court advantage counted for nothing during the finals. Not a single game was won by the home team, a remarkable run by the away sides.
The final word
Sunshine Coast Lightning have completed a remarkable season. They dealt with the loss of Laura Langman, a 0-3 start to the season, coach Noeline Taurua’s absence for part of the season, sliding into the final four in the last quarter of the last round, to winning the premiership. Their final game wasn’t flashy, just sixty minutes of good, solid netball. Their head and hands stayed in the game,
Fever, who finished seventh last season, almost pulled off a fairytale. They led by seven goals in the second quarter, but their patches of inconsistency were costly, and they will look back and rue the game that got away. While they should be rightfully proud of their efforts, the sign of a great club is one that isn’t happy with their achievements, but uses the pain of missed opportunities to drive them further and harder next season.
What they said
Noeline Taurua, Sunshine Coast Lightning coach
What were you thinking when they were up by seven?
“We had a bit of a change, obviously with Steph hitting in the post. Getting her back out on court, and for us to settle, was going to take time. There was a moment there when I was looking at the top (scoreboard) thinking, ‘They’re going to pull away’, but we finished that last quarter three down, and then we got four consecutive balls in a row and that meant we started to gain momentum again.”
Your defensive pressure today was outstanding.
“Totally. I was really excited by what we were able to put out over the past three or four weeks. We’ve been building really nicely as a unit, and our two out the front – Madi (McAuliffe) and Laura Scherian – do a lot of work in grinding down their players and getting the ball lifted for our inside circles.”
“Obviously with Karla there, who is pretty potent in getting ball, I think over the last four weeks we’ve been able to grind down a lot of the attacking ends, assert our dominance. Probably an area where we do get ball is our turnover, I thought we got good ball in that first quarter but we weren’t settled and hence it kept us close.”
Geva Mentor, Sunshine Coast Lightning
What did Noeline (Taurua) say at half time that allowed you to kick away in the third quarter?
“I think the important thing for us was that the work was done towards the end of that second quarter, and that we kept ourselves in touch.”
“Noel’s message has been clear all season: believe in ourselves and knowing that we’ve got the game plan to come on through.”
Caitlin Bassett, Sunshine Coast Lightning
Did you have any mixed emotions, because you were with Fever for so long?
“Definitely. To come back and see the success of their club is awesome and to see so many fans are engaged.”
Do you treasure this more because you didn’t have success with Fever?
“Yes. Success can be fleeting. You spend your whole life training and sacrificing and living away from your family for this elusive thing around our neck. It’s really about the people around you. Those happy tears at the end were because we’ve worked so hard in the last four weeks and never given up hope. It’s that belief we have in our team and in each other.”
Steph Wood, Sunshine Coast Lightning
What did you do to yourself?
“There was a little bit of pain and hurting when I was breathing. So they were trying to slow my breathing down but I was freaking out a little bit.”
What were you pleased with today?
“The grit. We were down by seven in that second quarter and our attack end, we were pretty ugly. Our defence kept giving us opportunity, keeping us in the game. Karla Pretorius is a freak of a netballer.”
Stacey Marinkovich, West Coast Fever coach
Where did you lose it?
“Obviously the third quarter they came out of the blocks, they’ve been very strong in third quarters throughout the season, and we knew that. It was a couple of passes they were executing extremely well, they kept the ball short, they took their opportunities when they got it. It’s only a few passes, small margins, so we will learn from this one.”
The last few minutes in each quarter, apart from the first, cost you.
“I think it was just the intensity. We were very good coming out of the blocks early, then you’ve got to not tighten up and keep letting the ball go. The work rate, the battles out there were physical and fast, and you’ve got to keep that concentration for a bit longer.”
Your midcourt have matured well this season. You must be proud of them.
“Absolutely. I think they took the cuts and drives, they were getting great ball supply in. You can see a level of poise that both ends of the court backed each other up. I think we played possession better than we’ve ever done before in big moments. You’ve just got to find that 60 minute performance, and we were seven minutes short of that this round.”
Courtney Bruce, West Coast Fever
Your thoughts moving forwards.
“We are going to take a lot from this, and I promise you next season we will come back firing.”
“Obviously the girls are disappointed, but we will stay connected and united, because that’s the kind of group we are.”
You let the seven goal margin slide. What were the factors behind that?
“We lacked a bit of accountability defensively and in the attack end we stopped letting the ball go. We just made some silly errors in general. But that’s a learning curve for us, it’s a big occasion, there’s a little bit of nerves out there. It’s how do we control that, take that accountability back and just play easy, simple netball like we’ve done all season.”
Nat Medhurst, West Coast Fever
What did you think of the game today?
“I think we’ve shown a lot of grit, but I hope it hurts. I was pretty emotional because it was a massive missed opportunity for us, obviously we were coming up against a great side which is what you expect heading into a grand final. But we had so many missed opportunities to push it out and capitalise on the ball and we didn’t do that. It hurts because you start replaying a lot of things in your head.”
Your battle with Karla?
“I think there were momentum swings, as there was during the game. To be honest I think we probably cancelled each other out. She got a few early where we just gave them to her in terms of our decision making.”
“I got on top a few times, then it was the other way round, but I certainly don’t think we allowed her to have that influence of roaming around and picking off balls, particularly around the edge of the circle which is a credit to our feeders.”
You talked about letting opportunities slide. Was it Fever’s inexperience or the pressure that Lightning applied?
“I think it was pressure. You look at that defensive end led so phenomenally by Geva. They made it hard, they bottled us up a lot of times across the transverse line. When we were patient with the ball, and got our movement working well, it opened up nicely for us. But our decision making was more around pressure, rather than our inexperience.”
Report: Jenny Sinclair
Photos: Steve McLeod
Another brilliant report to round off the season. Thanks Jenny.
Only just got a chance to read this.
Another great wrap up from you Jenny
You have had a wonderful season. As has the team.
Great read Jenny – thanks so much!
Great analysis of a great game