Last time West Coast Fever came to town, they were unceremoniously trounced by the rejuvenated Vixens. Two weeks later, they arrived to prove a point about playing away from home. The Magpies, facing diminishing finals aspirations, were just as intent on saving some face against the top team in the competition.
With a small home crowd of under 2000, Collingwood fans did not share the same faith, enabling Fever to go about their business with unanticipated ease.
From the outset, Fever defenders Courtney Bruce and Stacey Francis worked hard together to restrict Caitlin Thwaites leading space in goal circle. Francis was swift enough to switch back to covering GA Erin Bell’s leads as she entered the circle, which caused lots of disruption in attack. Bell scored only three goals from six attempts for the quarter, and contributed only one goal assist.
Bell found herself having to do laps around the outside of the goal circle before she could free herself for a pass, and while there were some rare moments when she was open at the post or on the baseline, Kim Ravaillion appeared to stop looking for her, causing the Magpies attack to break down when the first-pass option was not taken.
Thwaites tried to relieve the pressure by leading out of the circle, but this did not always synchronise with Bell leading in, so the Magpies were sometimes left with a vacant goal circle and an unsolvable crowd outside.
The Magpies gave up two turnovers on their seventh and eight centre passes of the opening quarter, and called a technical timeout with six minutes remaining. They returned to the court and immediately gave up their ninth centre pass, allowing Fever to carry a five goal margin to the quarter time break.
Throughout the game, Magpies GD Matilda Garrett implemented an excellent strategy against Fever’s dominant GS, Jhaniele Fowler. Fowler has a full 13cm height advantage over Garrett and Brandley; Garrett’s clever play caused Ingrid Colyer and Verity Simmons to forget how to lob to Fowler.
Magpies coach Kristy Keppich-Birrell later praised her developing connection with GD April Brandley. “We got lots of tips and intercepts when they really worked their feet on the ground,” she said.
While this was true, only two of the Magpies deflections led to defensive gains, and it often seemed that the WD and C players were not in the best position to anticipate when Brandley and Garrett pulled these off in the goal circle and gather them in.
When Fever used faster ball speed, Fowler was able to find space more easily in the goal circle. However, it was an unusual sight to see Fowler regularly releasing attack pressure by making leads out into the goal third, and Garrett was forcing her to take shots from further out than her one foot radius comfort zone, leading to two unaccustomed misses in the first quarter.
An ugly contact penalty that occurred on Fever’s 11th centre pass gave an exaggerated view of Garrett’s strategy, as she burrowed under Fowler to force her away from the post, causing Fowler to express some aggravation.
It took GA Natalie Medhurst to lead the way for the Fever with early and enterprising high balls in to the team’s favourite goal-shooting target, and she finished the game with 30 goal assists and 45 feeds. This work rate continued at the expense of her own shooting statistics, which were limited to eight goals from eight attempts.
As the Melbourne Vixens demonstrated in Round 7, Fever’s one-dimensional attack strategy is susceptible, and it raises the question of whether it can carry the team to a grand final victory, and why they are not rehearsing greater variety to prepare.
The second quarter began with Magpies replacing Bell at GA with perennial understudy Alice Teague-Neeld. Showing no deference to Francis’s reputation, she charged into play with great physical presence, stepping on with the ball to make quicker passes to Thwaites and scoring seven goals from eight attempts.
Nevertheless, it was still around the goal circle where the Magpies were giving up turnovers. Two were created through intercepts by Francis, who transitions from one-on-one marking to unanticipated space invasion as the attackers are barely forming their ideas. Fever went to half time seven goals ahead at 32-25, with two bonus points in their travelling bag.
The first half of this match once again substantiated the proposition that WA and WD are the key positions in this year’s competition. Colyer was getting the best of her matchup against Magpie WD Ash Brazill, whose specialty is running with her player and winning intercepts.
Colyer was labouring hard and effectively, and there were a number of plays where Brazill over-committed to an intercept opportunity, leaving her with free vision to feed Fowler at the goal post.
By half time, Brazill had made no defensive impact with intercepts or deflections, while Colyer had contributed 13 feeds to the Fever attack.
Down the Magpies’ end, Madi Robinson was having a much tougher time against Jess Anstiss. She had only one goal assist in the first quarter and five in the second quarter. Anstiss played a disciplined game with strong three-feet defence that put her in good position to keep Robinson away from the circle edge.
Keppich-Birrell attempted to address the mid-court issues by bringing Shae Brown into the game at WD in the third quarter. The wonder of this substitution is that she continued to leave the national WD cameo expert on the bench; and in fact Sharni Layton did not take the court at all in this game. Magpies’ midcourt unsurprisingly did not thrive on this setup, and ten minutes into the quarter, a further swap of Ravaillion to WA and Robinson to C was made.
Teague-Neeld continued to work hard in attack, but it was not synchronising well for the Magpies. She made a sensational unseen lead to the post on the second centre pass, and then, like the well-drilled GA she is, immediately cleared the circle to take a pass near the sideline.
Unfortunately she dropped the pass, and the Fever immediately converted the turnover. On the following Magpies centre pass Bruce intercepted an ill-conceived feed from Teague-Neeld to Thwaites, and the margin of ten goals to Fever was looking concrete. Fever finished the quarter 13 goals ahead, with their path to the goalpost much more straight forward via Fowler.
The bonus point system provided some legitimate excitement in the final quarter, when at the nine-minute mark the Magpies found themselves at 10-11 in the quarter score, even on centre passes. They held a tactical timeout to reinforce the game plan, and left the team positions unchanged, with Brown at C, Ravaillion at WA, Brazill back on at WD and Robinson on the bench.
The Magpies won a turnover when tight goal circle defence caused Medhurst to throw away the ball, but on their very next centre pass Thwaites stepped with the ball at the goal post and the advantage was lost. Brown won an intercept on the next Fever centre pass, but the smallest player on the court Ingrid Colyer intercepted it right back again, allowing Fever to score.
Two more turnovers on each subsequent centre pass had the quarter score even, with twenty seconds remaining. A whopper pass from Charles to Fowler, double-teamed at the post, ensured that Fever scored from theirs, but Thwaites equalled the heroics taking a long pass under pressure with five seconds to go, then calmly sank the shot to deny Fever the final bonus point of the game with a quarter score of 17-17. Fever took the win with a 13-goal margin, 70-57.
Fever coach Stacey Marinkovich was pretty happy with the win. “We learned some valuable lessons when we played Vixens,” she observed. “They really tested us and pushed us, and we knew we had to find another level. It was really good to put out that performance. The score didn’t really reflect the intensity of the game.”
Marinkovich was pleased with the accumulative pressure that Fever was able to apply through the game, particularly when the starting seven remained unchanged. “To get the win is something that we needed on the road, that was our first focus.
“The Magpies have depth, experience and versatility. For Jess Anstiss, up against Madi Robinson who is a quality athlete, to be able to control her own game was great. It was good to see our physical capacity to stand strong when challenged by so many players with fresh legs.
“The thing that we’ve had to improve on over the last couple of years is our discipline and making sure we are building pressure. I think that is what the Vixens do so well – they stay in the play and put a lot of pressure over the ball. Collingwood do the same, and that is something we have been working on from pre-season: that when we contest, we are building pressure rather than standing out of play. To get our penalty count down by twenty from what our average was last year, it really shows that you can have an impact on your opposition.”
Stacey Francis, who today added a whiplash hairdo disarmingly dyed in club colours to her armoury of defensive arts, illustrated this point well. Coming in to Round 9, she was averaging 12 contact penalties a game, including a high of 16 penalties against the Magpies in Round 2, which caused some opposition consternation.
In this game, Francis accumulated a very tidy five penalties, with no shirt fronts attempting intercepts outside the circle. Marinkovic clearly has more work to do with Bruce, who is averaging 15 contact penalties per game, and over 17 in Fever’s two losses to the Firebirds and the Vixens.
Post-match, Magpies coach Keppich-Birrell was keen to emphasise the commitment of her players. “We really care that we’re not performing at a level to be at the top of this competition,” she said. “The players care deeply for one another and for our club. These players are good people, and this club is a great club to support.
“It’s just not happening enough on the court for us. We picture ourselves being at the top of the league but we’re obviously not. We’re working on all the technical and tactical stuff that our players need to work on. It all comes down to a few mistakes out there on the court and we know that they’re costing us dearly, and we’re doing everything we possible can to find the connections on court and explore every option. We love this game and we know that we’re a start-up club and we want to give our fans every reason to celebrate who we are.”
Keppich-Birrell was particularly excited about Teague-Neeld’s entrance to the game in the second quarter. “Alice has been playing particularly well with our Tassie Magpies, who just made the grand final of the ANL. Her performances there have been really consistent. Her ability to find space and make her defender accountable was probably what we saw out there tonight. It’s really exciting, she’s such a young player and she has so much promise for this club in the years ahead.”
With the finals out of reach for the Magpies 2018, there seems little prospect of the bench players being given more game time on principle.
“We’ll always work together to find the best combination out there,” Keppich-Birrell said. “We don’t necessarily pre-plan for those things, because we’re a club with pride, we don’t give bibs out for free. These guys really work hard during the week, we work hard together to make sure that we’ve got the best seven on court at all times and the best combinations.”
And the coach was not concerned that it would be difficult to maintain an upbeat atmosphere for the last five rounds. “The culture of this group is amazing. They keep each other up and accountable. They really enjoy each other and they enjoy playing the game. We’ll make sure that we celebrate all the little wins, because there is some exciting stuff happening on court.”
The number of positional changes in the midcourt in this match raised the question of whether Keppich-Birrell subscribes to the more traditional stable lineup approach to coaching, or whether rolling substitutions to disrupt momentum and seek a better matchup are optimal.
“It’s an interesting time in our game,” Keppich-Birrell said. “There are definitely some changing philosophies around that I think we see right from the Diamonds all the way down. We are trying to pick the best matchups and capturing and keeping that for longer. That’s our eternal strategy – thinking that every quarter is an opportunity to win a point.”
West Coast Fever 70 def Collingwood Magpies 57
(16-11, 32-25, 53-40, 70-57)
Player of the Match: Courtney Bruce (Fever)
West Coast Fever
Fowler 62/66 94%
Medhurst 8/8 100%
Thwaites 43/50 86%
Bell 3/6 50%
Teague-Neeld 11/13 85%
West Coast Fever
Nat Medhurst (Fever) 45
Verity Charlies (Fever) 38
Kim Ravaillion (Magpies) 26
Madi Robinson (Magpies) 24
Report: Jane Edwards
Photos: Aliesha Vicars