Queensland Firebirds late charge to the finals continued as they completed a six goal take down of the West Coast Fever on Saturday night.
The Firebirds winning record at the Perth Arena stayed intact as they nullified the crowd and a slow start to overpower the ladder leaders.
While the Fever took an early lead that crept out to six goals at one point, they were unable to maintain their intensity across the whole sixty minute game. In contrast the Firebirds are battle hardened, appearing in four of the last five grand finals. With five seasoned campaigners on court, they had the physical and mental edge to push through until the final siren.
The Fever and Firebirds are perhaps the two most similar teams in the competition. They feature a towering goal shooter, creative goal attack, short but speedy midcourt and a reactive defence. Their game plans focus on clogging up the midcourt in defence and using triangles around the circle to work the ball under the post.
The Firebirds didn’t shoot a single goal from range throughout the game, while the Fever had just five from outside the 2.5 metre arc.
The significant difference between the teams is that the Firebirds have had a number of years working together, while the Fever are still learning to make the most of their first year circle combination.
Most of the balls going into Romelda Aiken and Gretel Tippett are aerial, relying on their height to reel them in. In contrast, the Fever showed reluctance to put the high ball up to Jhaniele Fowler at times, despite her outstanding athleticism. They were perhaps paying too much respect to the anticipation and aerial capacity of Laura Geitz, but should have been able to let the ball go and rely on Fowler to complete the task.
There were numerous turnover opportunities created throughout the game, although it was the Fever who were best able to capitalise on them in the first half.
At wing defence, Jess Anstiss did a remarkable job of curbing the influence of opponent Caitlyn Nevins, who had just 6 goal assists and 12 feeds for the first three quarters.
This left the bulk of the circle feeding to Firebirds centre Mahalia Cassidy, who had 13 goal assists and 26 feeds in the same period. With so much of the workload falling on the less experienced player’s shoulders, a number of errors were created. Any poorly placed passes into the circle were gobbled up by Courtney Bruce, who picked off three intercepts and six deflections for the game.
Nat Medhurst and Kim Jenner were having a fascinating tussle. With Gabi Simpson doing her best to blanket Ingrid Colyer, Medhurst was available time and again as a passing and feeding option. While she wasn’t able to stop Medhurst’s drives onto the ball, Jenner’s anticipation and closing speed saw her pounce on any loosely placed passes, coming up with one intercept and four deflections for the game.
By midway through the second quarter the Fever had edged out to a six goal lead. Despite being spurred on by the passionate crowd, the game went slowly downhill for the home team. Both sides were placing enormous pressure on each other, creating turnovers, but often struggling to capitalise on them. The Fever’s undoing was a rash of unforced errors, ranging from footwork and dropped balls, to delaying and offside calls.
With the scoreline whittled back to even, Fever coach Stacey Marinkovich changed her side in the third quarter to try and generate more defensive impact. Shannon Eagland took the court at wing defence, with Anstiss and Verity Charles both moving forward. It was a horror period for the usually reliable Anstiss; four soft handling errors gifted the Firebirds the lead.
The cause wasn’t helped by Eagland, who contributed two stepping penalties. While it’s difficult to enter a heated contest from the bench, she then attracted the umpires whistle, and was put out of play too often.
With a two goal lead at three quarter time, the Firebirds continued to lift their intensity, with Geitz pouncing on any loose balls. She created such doubt in the feeder’s minds that by midway through the final quarter, Fowler had scored just two goals for the term. Fortunately for the Fever, Medhurst upped the ante, nimbly cutting and driving around the circle, and keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
Fever tried to hurry their scoring along but forced long passes into Fowler were rarely effective. As an incredible athlete she’s capable of reaching balls that look to sail over the baseline, but unfortunately most of the turnovers came through passes that dropped short and into Geitz’s waiting hands. Nevins relished being free of Anstiss’ blanketing attentions and came to life, with ten feeds for the final term.
With just four minutes left in the game and the deficit growing, Marinkovich made a final roll of the dice. Annika Lee-Jones was introduced at goal keeper, benching Eagland, and pushing Bruce and Francis forward into goal defence and wing defence respectively.
The lack of time together in this combination showed; there was little cohesiveness on defence and the Fever were unable to make headway in reducing the margin. A Jenner deflection on resumption of play nailed the coffin lid shut, with the Firebirds winning the game by six goals.
Queensland Firebirds 60 def West Coast Fever 54
(13-16, 28-31, 43-41, 60-54)
Player of the Match: Gretel Tippett (Firebirds)
Aiken 41/50 82%
Tippett 19/24 79%
West Coast Fever
Fowler 42/45 93%
Medhurst 12/16 75%
West Coast Fever
GS Jhaniele Fowler
GA Nat Medhurst
WA Ingrid Colyer
C Verity Charles
WD Jess Anstiss
GD Stacey Francis
GK Courtney Bruce.
Changes: Q3 WD Eagland, C Anstiss, WA Charles, Q4 GK Lee-Jones, GD Bruce, WD Francis
GS Romelda Aiken
GA Gretel Tippett
WA Caitlyn Nevins
C Mahalia Cassidy
WD Gabi Simpson
GD Kim Jenner
GK Laura Geitz.
Nat Medhurst 26
Gretel Tippett 21
Mahalia Cassidy 18
Verity Charles 11
Centre pass receives
Gretel Tippett 25
Ingrid Colyer 18
Caitlyn Nevins 17
Nat Medhurst 15
Kim Jenner 5
Courtney Bruce 5
The Firebirds gamble has paid off
With rosters reduced to ten in Suncorp Super Netball, most teams have split their shooting end, centre court and defence on a 3/4/3 basis. Not the Firebirds. Wanting to keep two of Australia’s brightest young stars and maintain a place for Laura Geitz after maternity leave, they have split their group 2/4/4. It’s been fortunate that Romelda Aiken and Gretel Tippett are resilient, as if either player had been injured it would have left the team disastrously minus a shooter.
In a league where defence is crucial to games’ outcomes, they’ve had the luxury of rotating Laura Geitz, Laura Clemesha, Tara Hinchliffe and Kim Jenner through the back two positions. It’s allowed the two 20 year old’s time to adapt to the demands of professional netball, and the Firebirds flexibility in their match ups. It’s been a winning strategy so far, but one that few teams would dare to copy.
The challenge for the Firebirds will be keeping both Jenner and Hinchliffe as, despite their relative inexperience, they are far too good to be riding the bench. Their height (Jenner 184cm, Hinchliffe 185cm), athleticism and ability to create turnovers stamps them as potential Diamonds goal defences. Expect other franchises to tempt them with regular court time.
The 192cm goal attack has been in scintillating form in 2018. According to national coach Lisa Alexander, Tippett had an enormous off-season in her quest to be part of Australia’s Commonwealth Games team. While that didn’t happen, her form has been crucial to the Firebirds success this season.
Her game has matured to the point where she’s now perhaps the most influential goal attack in the league. Sitting in the top eight for centre pass receives, goal assists and offensive rebounds, Tippett has also racked up 4 intercepts and 19 deflections. Her high release jump pass is unstoppable, and her offensive and defensive workload remarkable. Tippett’s form should earn her a recall to the Diamonds’ final team of twelve.
Coach Roselee Jencke said, “She’s smart and she’s just a fantastic athlete. For all the netball purists out there, I love her because she’s different, and she’s exciting. While she’s a little bit different, we need that in the game.”
Where to next
With two rounds remaining and just 8 points between 1st and 5th place on the ladder, finals positions are anyone’s guess. This loss was costly for the Fever; while they are still at the top of the table they are just two points clear of the Giants. Fever (63 points) and Giants (61 points) have a modest buffer on the Melbourne Vixens (56 points) and the Firebirds and Sunshine Coast Lightning (55 points each).
The road home won’t be easy for the Fever – they face the Giants and Vixens in a killer end to the season.
The Giants should maintain their place in the top four, but it will be tougher for the Vixens, whose final two games are against the Fever and the Lightning. Even one big loss could see them drop out of the four altogether. The Lightning will look to earn points against the Swifts, and a big win could see them jump into the top four.
In contrast the Queensland Firebirds have by far the smoothest run to the finals. They play their final two games at home, against seventh and eighth placed Collingwood Magpies and Adelaide Thunderbirds. If they should win, and win big, there is the potential they could finish on top.
Home ground advantage will be absolutely crucial in the finals, so expect a frenetic few weeks as the five teams jostle for placings.
What they said
Kim Jenner, Queensland Firebirds
What were you pleased with?
“We were able to compose ourselves and push back in the second half.”
You’ve spent time on the bench this season, but been very strong in the last few games you’ve played.
“Tara (Hincliffe) has been killing it out there on court, but it’s been exciting for me to get an opportunity to get out there and do my best.”
Rose mentioned your athleticism. Tell us about your sporting background?
“I was a sprinter when I was younger, so that’s helped. I’ve worked a lot on my speed and vertical jump.”
You are the only team with four defenders. Has this worked to your advantage?
“We have such strong defensive options and both Laura’s have been great in helping Tara (Hincliffe) and I with advice and passing on their tips and knowledge. It’s awesome that we have so many options in defence. The ability to change up our defensive end is a positive for the team.”
Gretel Tippett, Queensland Firebirds
What changed in the second half
“The first half was a struggle for us, but at half time we tweaked what we were doing and that helped. Rose was really calm, and she told us that if we want to make finals we have to produce.”
The Firebirds had a slow start to the season and are finishing strongly. What is the difference?
“We play better when our backs are against the wall and we like the challenge. While we were working hard in the first half of the year, it’s just clicking for us now.”
Was missing out on the Diamonds Commonwealth Games campaign a motivation towards having a strong domestic season?
“Missing out on Diamonds was hard but gave me extra motivation to tick off all the little things I needed to do to take my game up a level for the Firebirds and in the future. You surround yourself with your support network, take some time away and reflect, and do your best to get over it. While it means so much to you, it is hard to make the Diamonds because they’re such an amazing team.”
Your thoughts on tonight’s game?
“We started off a bit shakily but then our nerves settled. It’s very hard with Fowler at one end, and you have to have a lot of pressure on the transverse line, and I thought that we did that exceptionally well in the second half of the game.”
Kim Jenner has been strong in the last few games.
“She’s been training well all year. The younger players, with their younger bodies and in their first season of Suncorp like Tara (Hinchliffe), the repeat weeks can be draining. They’ve got to build up that resilience over time, and that takes a couple of seasons. Kim’s attributes are that she’s deceptively quick and she has really good elevation even though she looks quite slight.”
Courtney Bruce, West Coast Fever
Your thoughts on the loss
“We started really well but in the third quarter the Firebirds stepped up their intensity and we didn’t step up with them. They suffocated our goal end. We needed more punch and drive through that area. We were a bit slow to adapt to the changes we made on court. We need to help each other out more, instead of being so individual.”
You haven’t beaten Firebirds this season. Does that dent your confidence in the lead up to finals?
“Not really. We ran with the Firebirds for three quarters tonight, but our downfall was our own fault. We threw silly balls away, stepping calls, individual errors rather than forced errors. So while we do have to be accountable for that, we know that we still have a sixty minute game to put together.”
Stacey Marinkovich, West Coast Fever coach
What went wrong tonight?
“We came out firing, we addressed the start which we haven’t had in previous weeks. In the third quarter we were sitting on the perimeter of the defenders rather than continuing to take on those cuts and drives. It wasn’t necessarily one player, the spark was down and you can’t afford to take away that intensity because they came out fighting and challenging every ball.”
“We got some good ball, we really challenged in parts, but it’s (playing) four quarters against quality opposition like Firebirds.”
“There was pressure out there on both sides, the way the ball had to be played back and across the court so many times. That’s what you’ve got when you have two teams who play really hard one on one defence, it’s the persistence and making sure. It does take a huge workload. So mentally you’ve got to be able to push. They’re physically fit enough to do it, but mentally they have to extend that duration.”
Talk through your changes.
“Late in the (fourth) quarter we were down and needed to get ball so I went with some height. Bringing Annie (Lee-Jones) on and pushing Courtney and Stacey out that gives us a different dynamic to see if we could get some ball late. At the centre pass, we were getting a bit stagnant and Jess provides a defensive element. A few changes, they didn’t necessarily work or not work, collectively us a group we need to work out where the drive was that we had at the beginning of the game.
Report: Jenny Sinclair
Photos: Steve McLeod
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