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THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO BUT PHOENIX SET TO RISE
Jessica Halloran and AAP
Sydney Morning Herald

Melbourne Phoenix coach Lisa Alexander felt a pit of nervousness in her stomach as she drove home from yesterday’s netball grand final breakfast in Melbourne. After two hours on the Gippsland Highway she arrived at her home in the country and stared out on to the “rolling green hills” to relax and put aside of the task of steering her team to a third premiership trophy.

But tonight pure determination will engulf Alexander’s mind as she attempts to plot the Adelaide Thunderbirds’ downfall. Adelaide have been uncharacteristically out of form and have lost to the Phoenix in their past two games, but Alexander and her players are expecting more from them in Melbourne tonight. “It will be a much closer encounter between the two teams,” she said. “We watched them carefully last week [against the Swifts in the preliminary final]. The Thunderbirds are a great outfit. They do their home work very well.”

Phoenix co-captain and goal shooter Eloise Southby also believes the Thunderbirds will be a sharper team because of the occasion and said a great start” to the match was the key to victory. “I don’t think we can expect them to play how they have in the past. I expect them to give us their all,” Southby said. “I think the first quarter will be a bat out of hell. We will make sure we get off to a good start and play to their pace.”

Southby believes the Thunderbirds’ centre court is their key weapon. “I think they’ve got different strengths all over the court, but their mid-court with Bec [Sanders] in centre and you have [to watch] Jacqui Delaney in that centre corridor. Southby also said Adelaide captain Kathryn Harby-Williams’s intercepting in defence was the key to Adelaide’s staunch defence.

Southby labelled their clash in June last year “physical and bitter” after players from both sides finished with bloody noses and bruises. But Alexander said the rules had changed since and umpiring had become more vigilant. “I think the umpires now have got a lot more room to manoeuvre in terms of discipline on the court,” she said. “They are not putting up with any dissent and are not prepared to put up with it. They set the standard at the start of the game.”

The vigilance of the umpiring was shown in their major semi-final when the Thunderbirds gave away a massive 106 penalties. But while the game may not be as physical as in the past, it should be just as intense. Phoenix co-captain Liz Boniello said her team was “pumped up and ready to go”. “The umpires have been controlling the game, especially in the recent weeks,” she said. I expect it not to be physical, but we expect to control [the play].”

She said Adelaide’s preliminary final win showed how strong and tough they were. The rest of the season is so irrelevant now, what matters is [tonight]. They will be tough, they will want this grand final just as much as we do.”

The odds favour the Phoenix. The Thunderbirds don’t have a great record in Melbourne winning only one-third of their 15 matches there, the grand final has always been won by the home team and the Phoenix have beaten the Thunderbirds in their two previous grand final clashes. But Harby-Williams said the Thunderbirds, fitter and more confident, were capable of vast improvement.

Harby-Williams said Adelaide’s unflattering grand final record of successive losses in 2000 and 2001 and two wins from five title deciders also counted for little. “A lot of people will say, `Look, if you lose this one you’re under-achievers’, but we’re a lot happier to have reached the grand final than to have lost last week [in the preliminary final]. There’s no fear at all, our group is quite relaxed, we’ve exceeded our own expectations and we’re confident we can come over and be prepared to win the game.”

Adelaide centre Sanders seems to have fully recovered from the dislocated ankle she suffered in the semi-final against the Phoenix two weeks ago and starred against the Swifts last week. And shooters Jacqui Delaney and Jacqui Roberts, who had been out of touch in recent times, showed better form last week. Thunderbirds wing defence Peta Squire, who has never missed a game with the side since the competition started in 1997, will play her 100th match tonight.

THE FACTS AND FIGURES

MELBOURNE PHOENIX:
Coach: Lisa Alexander.
Captains: Liz Boniello and Eloise Southby.

ADELAIDE THUNDERBIRDS:
Coach: Marg Angove.
Captain: Kathryn Harby-Williams.

HEAD TO HEAD:
Played 19: Phoenix 12, Thunderbirds 6, Drawn 1.

2002:
Phoenix 51-43 (round seven).
Phoenix 60-47 (round 14).
Phoenix 53-38 (major semi-final).

Grand finals: Phoenix 58-48 (1997), Phoenix 52-51 (2000).