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PHOENIX CHASING A SWIFTS VICTORY
KAREN LYON
The Age

MIDWAY through this year, Eloise Southby-Halbish was left wondering how anybody was going to beat the Sydney Swifts. The Melbourne Phoenix had fallen to the Sydney champions by 11 goals in their round-six clash and as the Phoenix co-captain remembers, the Swifts hadn’t really played all that well. “At the start of the year the Swifts were flying and I thought. ‘How are we ever going to beat them?’,” Southby-Halbish said yesterday.

Knowing they would face the reigning champions again this season, Phoenix coach Julie Hoornweg and her staff produced dossiers on all the Swifts players, including video highlights of all their performances. Those details have turned into positive results for the Phoenix, who finally inflicted the Swifts’ first loss of the year in round 13 with a blowout 17-goal victory, and then followed by winning the major semi-final by two goals in Wollongong a fortnight ago.

The wins have given Melbourne the unexpected role as host of today’s national league final, the third straight year the Phoenix and Swifts play in the final, although Southby-Halbish is not convinced her team should be the punter’s favourite. Yes, she is confident Melbourne can claim its third title in four years. Yes, the two victories have changed all thoughts the Swifts are unbeatable. But favouritism? “I think its hard to tell,” she said. “It’s going to be pretty close, it is going to be a red-hot contest.”

Swifts coach Julie Fitzgerald does not believe her team has given up its recent advantage over the Phoenix after being beaten twice by Melbourne in a three-week period. She believes their 20-goal win over Adelaide in the preliminary final restored any lost confidence. “It’s never occurred to me that they have the upper hand,” Fitzgerald said. “Last week’s game was really good for us, we really needed that match.”

Today’s grand final presents several enticing match-ups, the Phoenix shooting combination of Southby-Halbish and goal attack Sharelle McMahon has been in excellent form recently and they will be pitted against national captain Liz Ellis and Alison Broadbent.

For Melbourne to regain the title, goal keeper Bianca Chatfield will have to cut the influence of star Swifts goal shooter Catherine Cox. After being diagnosed with glandular fever in May, Chatfield was restricted in playing time during the early weeks of the season. Despite the illness she refused to stop playing and admits now it might have caused the effects to linger longer than necessary. “I just wanted to play and I didn’t want to let anyone down,” she said.

The goal keeper started to feel well again after the mid-season break. She played her first full game against cross-town rivals the Kestrels in the second of the year’s derbies and celebrated her 100th game with a best-on-court performance against Cox in round 13. “Everything just seemed to be falling into place and I was enjoying myself out there and I was just feeling really, really good,” Chatfield said.

She knows a similar performance against Cox will go a long way to securing the title but expects Sydney to come out smarting after its past two matches against Melbourne. “The Swifts are a great team, with awesome players, and we really have to be conscious that they are going to come out and hit us hard,” she said. Shutting down Cox – who leads all scoring for the season with 602 goals at a career best 87 per cent – is one of the big challenges.

THE FINALISTS

Played 23
Melbourne Phoenix 10
Sydney Swifts 12
Drawn 1

This year’s meetings:
Round 6: Sydney d Melbourne 65-54.
Round 13: Melbourne d Sydney 57-40.
Major semi-final: Melbourne d Sydney 49-47.

Premierships
Phoenix 4: 2003, 2002, 2000, 1997.
Swifts 2: 2004, 2001.