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Avatar photoIan Harkin
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    By Tim Dick
    September 13, 2003

    If you’d turned up two hours late to the national league grand final on Friday night, you would’ve known who had won without looking at the scoreboard. Only the Melbourne Phoenix were still around, like party gatecrashers who didn’t know when to go home.

    They rained on the Sydney Swifts’ parade, retaining their championship title and securing their NNL dominance – four titles in their seven-year history. The record crowd for a domestic game – 10,507 – was outscreamed by a small but hardy bunch of Southern Men who donned purple hair and the purple playing uniforms of their Phoenix partners and friends.

    In the end it was that band of merry men who got to cheer their team last during the presentation ceremony, knowing that the Melbourne Phoenix had made history by winning a grand final away from home – the first team to do so.

    Wiping away tears after the game, victorious coach Lisa Alexander said “it’s a very emotional victory”, as co-captain Liz Boniello made her final game a winning one. Alexander wasn’t shy in praising the standard of the match, saying: “If people don’t want to watch netball, they’re bloody mad after that.”

    She said it was one of the best games she had seen.

    That probably wasn’t what Swifts shooter Catherine Cox was thinking, saying she was preparing to drown her sorrows but was already looking to next year.

    In the post-match huddle, “Liz [Ellis] said to us, ‘just remember how bad this feels because we don’t want to be here again’.

    “Look forward to next year. It’s the only thing you can do,” Cox said.

    Going into the game, the Swifts had a double-barrelled advantage over the Phoenix, having beaten them nine times to six with one draw overall, but the major statistic against a Victorian win was that an away team had never won a grand final.

    The Phoenix might have won half the six previous title-deciders they had played in but each was in front of a partisan Melbourne crowd. Last night, with a record-breaking crowd of 10,507 almost entirely against them, the Phoenix had to play a near-perfect game – and hope the Swifts returned to their late-season form slump – to become only the second team to successfully defend a championship title.

    The SuperDome was an unhappy hunting ground for the Phoenix when they played the Swifts in May – also in front of a then-record club crowd – Sydney team winning surprisingly easily, 51-38.

    Yet if last night’s Phoenix side was concerned about facing a overwhelmingly partisan crowd, it wasn’t showing it as the players piled out of their mini-bus behind the SuperDome chatting amicably.

    The Phoenix dominated the early part of the game against a faltering Swifts effort. Yet once the Swifts settled – particularly defenders Liz Ellis and Alison Broadbent – they began to claw back that lead. At quarter-time the home side were up by two.

    The second quarter descended into a display of outstanding defence interfering with both sides’ occasionally faltering attack, although it was the Swifts who felt it worse. Cox and Jane Altschwager managed just a 62 per cent conversion rate for the quarter, 17 less than Sharelle McMahon and Eloise Southby. Despite that, the lead swapped four times, with the Phoenix taking a single goal lead into half-time, 23-22.

    After that, they pulled away. As the three-quarter time clock struck, the Swifts trailed the reigning champions 37-31. Their shooting had only improved by five per cent – to 69 – not enough in a grand final. It wasn’t to change in the final quarter.

    While she continued to be her composed self, Swifts coach Julie Fitzgerald’s face and lowered shoulders as she glanced at the scoreboard with four minutes left suggested she knew the title wouldn’t be coming to Sydney.

    The lead didn’t stop McMahon continuing to give all who crossed her – including her own teammates – ice-cold stares that gave away just how much she wanted the win. And despite a mini-comeback by the Swifts near the end, they didn’t have enough of the McMahon mongrel to do it.

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