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Ian Harkin
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Nabila Ahmed, Sydney
The Sunday Age

Sydney Swifts coach Julie Fitzgerald felt it was her team’s destiny to triumph in the National Netball League grand final yesterday. Her captain, star defender Liz Ellis, though, was well aware that destiny “does not quite pull on a skirt and play”. Still, when Ellis watched the Kookaburras defy the odds to beat the Netherlands to claim an Olympic gold in the early hours of yesterday as part of her news presenting shift for Channel Seven, she took some heart.

The Australian men’s hockey team had defeated a side going for its third consecutive title and the Swifts would be facing the same challenge against dual reigning premiers Melbourne Phoenix in a matter of hours. “I nearly missed my flight because I was watching the Kookaburras and I did take note that the Netherlands were going for their third gold medal in a row and I thought that’s a great omen for us,” said Ellis.

But with little more than 11 minutes remaining in the grand final at Sydney’s SuperDome and the Phoenix leading by six goals, Ellis began to think that perhaps her unorthodox preparation – she trained away from her team at the Victorian Institute of Sport every afternoon after completing the midnight-to-dawn shift for Seven – had not been such a good idea after all.

Then she remembered the e-mails that teammate Megan Anderson had sent around to the Swifts group during the week. “They were photos of 2001 when we won and then photos of last year when we lost. She said, ‘What feeling do you want on Saturday?’ It was the thing that drove us,” she said. So Ellis did what she does, and “stepped up a grade”, as Fitzgerald put it, pulling off a couple of brilliant intercepts to stem the flow of the Phoenix game and slowly turn the tide the Swifts’ way.

The Phoenix, who crashed the home team’s party last year to become the first group to win a grand final away from home, were spent and tired after an intense three-and-a-half quarters, and could only watch as their lead was pared back. It was down to two when Swifts’ Alison Broadbent made a crucial intercept to allow teammate Catherine Cox, the competition’s leading goal scorer, to goal at the other end.

Although Phoenix co-captain Sharelle McMahon managed to take the lead back out to two within 30 seconds, the Swifts soon drew level and with a minute left in the match, Cox put the home team in the lead. Eloise Southby-Halbish responded immediately for the Phoenix but with about 15 seconds left, it was Cox who found herself under the basket with the ball. Ellis knew then that the game was theirs. “I just had absolute confidence . . . I just thought it’ll go in,” she said later.

As for Cox, who had already scored 557 goals this season, she was trying not to worry too much. “I didn’t think about anything, because as soon as I think about it, I will miss it. So I just got it and thought ‘this one’s going in and it did’,” Cox said .

An emotional Fitzgerald said later she always believed her team would fight back. “I said to them before we came out tonight, ‘We led this for 13 rounds, we’re the minor premiers for the first time, if you ever deserve it, it’s now’.”

Southby-Halbish said it was enough that the Phoenix had risen from the ashes of their worst season to come within a goal of glory. “We played pretty terrible earlier in the year. We started off OK but then we got a bit messy in the middle and there were a few injuries and other things happening in the team,” she said. “We’ve had a hard tussle in the last few weeks getting into this final and we just ran out of legs in the end. I’m really proud of my team, we gave it our best shot and we came slightly short, so I’m looking forward to next year already.”

Phoenix coach Lisa Alexander said yesterday was Sydney’s day. “They gave their all out there and I don’t want anyone thinking or feeling that we didn’t give it all,” she said. “Everything was left out on that court this afternoon and a better team beat us on the day.”