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Ian Harkin
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The Sunday Age

A new, expanded national league begins next year. Linda Pearce previews the final year of competition as we know it.

WHAT was conceived in 1985 and nurtured through several changes of name and identity is in its death throes. What happens this year will lay to rest the abbreviated form of club-based competition we have come to know, if not love. And so what has been referred to as a national netball league will next year be truly that. The 1996 Mobil League starts at Melbourne’s Waverley netball stadium on Friday night and ends – for this year and for good – at Adelaide’s Powerhouse on 27 May. Then, finally, when the bigger, better and longer version is introduced in 1997, Victoria will get the two-team representation it has long craved and probably deserved.

Yet the new national champion state is not without legitimate hope of farewelling the old format in style. Victorian teams have won only two of the 11 titles decided but its sole representative, Melbourne-Waverley Pumas, surprised most observers in 1995 by reaching the grand final against the vastly more experienced Sydney Electricity.

It lost, but gained plenty. Now, 12 months on, coach Norma Plummer believes her maturing squad has everything required to take the extra step not managed by a local team since the composite Melbourne City in 1990. Last year, the goal was to make the grand final. This year it is to win. “Everyone kept thinking we didn’t really have a chance, possibly because Victorian netball had been at such a low ebb,” she says. That was their perception and actually, it probably suited us, because a lot of the focus wasn’t on us.”

Although the loss of promising young centre Susie Howie, who had foot surgery last week, will be felt, Megan Fleiner returns from a year at the Australian Institute of Sport as a cover for Michelle Benison and Ingrid Dick in the mid-court. Veteran Roselee Jencke has thought better of retiring and will exert the bench pressure on talented defensive duo Liz Taverner and national player of the year Janine Lynch. Toss in the incomparable Simone McKinnis on the wing and it is a defence with few, if any, peers. At the other end, Eloise Southby should continue her march towards higher honors, Southby and goal attack Dani Arnott having shown great poise and composure during Victoria’s drought- breaking national title win.

As ever, apart from defending champion Sydney, the main threats will be the South Australian clubs Contax and Garville, although both will probably be missing key players in Vicki Wilson and Michelle Fielke. Yet, apart from team aspirations, there is also the personal motivation of national selection. In May, the Australian open team for the one-off match against South Africa and the three- Test series against New Zealand will be chosen, as will the under-21 team for the World Youth Cup in Canada in August.

ROUND ONE DRAW, Waverley Netball Stadium – Friday, 1 March: Adelaide Garville v AIS, 7pm; Adelaide Contax v Sydney Cenovis, 9pm. Saturday, 2 March: Fremantle Pumas v Sydney Electricity, 7pm; Melbourne-Waverley Pumas v Queensland Mac-attacks, 9pm.


Sydney Energy: Last year: 1st.
Comment: Same old faces – Kenny, Devery, Finnan, Dalwood, Cusack et al – as well as an even bigger and more formidable Jo Morgan to contend with under the offensive post. Some ageing legs, sure, but again one of the teams to beat.

Melbourne-Waverley Pumas: Last year: 2nd.
Comment: Surprised many last year with a gallant run to the grand final. One of the stoutest defences in the competition, complemented by the ever-improving Eloise Southby in attack, and should be better for last year’s experience.

Adelaide Garville: Last year: 3rd.
Comment: The temporary loss of Michelle den Dekker (formerly Fielke) to motherhood will dilute Garville’s chances under new coach Deborah Miller despite a formidable front four of Borlase, Avellino, Abbott and Grant.

Adelaide Contax: Last year: 4th.
Comment: Champion Vicki Wilson’s recovery, or otherwise, from knee surgery will be crucial to the chances of the 1994 champion. Kathyrn Harby will lead from the back but, despite Jacqui Delaney’s promise, the troubles could be up front.

Sydney Cenovis: Last year: 5th.
Comment: Ten of its 16 squad members are under 20, including imported shooter Catherine Cox, but Liz Ellis, Marianne McCormack (nee Murphy) and Catriona Wagg still represent an experienced core. Competitive at worst.

Australian Institute of Sport: Last year: 7th.
Comment: One of the big losers in next year’s move to an extended national league. Victorian import Shelley O’Donnell will lead its final fling in the big-time, with World Youth Cup selection a tasty carrot for several squad members.

Queensland Mac-Attacks: Last year: 8th.
Comment: Last year’s wooden-spooner has recruited Victorian defender Peta Kennedy to fill the import’s role initially earmarked for South African shooter Irene Van Dyk. Recent form in Melbourne unimpressive. Prefer others.

Fremantle Pumas: Last year: -.
Comment: The only new team in the competition, replacing the habitually mediocre Perth Bullets, and coached by former national player Elsma Merillo. Familiar names include Kylie Dirou, Sally Ironmonger and Chelsey Mardon.