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Ian Harkin
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By Melissa Woods
The Sun-Herald

Melbourne Phoenix reclaimed their title as the nation’s best team with a crushing 17-goal win over defending champions the Sydney Swifts yesterday. The 61-44 win was the third biggest in grand final history and gave Melbourne their fifth crown since 1997 and their first under rookie coach Julie Hoornweg.

The victory eased painful memories of last year’s grand final defeat, when the Swifts fought back from six goals down in the final quarter to snatch a one-goal win. This year there was no such fightback from the Sydney side.

Melbourne set up the win with a stunning third-quarter showing, as their lead blew out to 12 goals at the final break. Fired-up Phoenix co-captain Eloise Southby-Halbish was unstoppable in the goal circle, slotting 11 goals from 11 attempts in the third term while fellow co-captain Sharelle McMahon also posted a perfect total – six from six. Southby-Halbish finished the game with 33 goals, while McMahon slotted 28 to guide the Phoenix home.

Southby-Halbish, who has played in all five grand final victories, said she was shocked by the winning margin. “I knew we were capable of doing that but I certainly didn’t think we would,” she said. “Our defensive unit was just on fire and made it easy for us. The winning quarter was the third one when we shot 100 per cent each and we were just determined and it opened up for us.”

The Melbourne defence, led by goalkeeper Bianca Chatfield, starved the Swifts of scoring opportunities and wing defence Natasha Chokljat and centre Ingrid Dick dominated through the mid-court. The Phoenix got off to a good start to take a 15-12 lead at the first break, despite Sydney goal shooter Catherine Cox and goal attack Megan Anderson each landing six goals from six attempts.

Melbourne extended their lead to six goals midway through the second quarter with McMahon and Southby-Halbish holding off some aggressive defence from Sydney’s Liz Ellis and Alison Broadbent. Ellis hurt her ankle during the preliminary final last week but the injury didn’t hamper the Australian captain’s play.

The Swifts fought back to trail by only three, 28-25, by half-time and appeared to have the momentum. But Melbourne quickly put a stop to that, aided by a growing penalty count and turnover rate from the Sydneysiders and the home side took full control.

Sydney skipper Ellis said her team was simply off its game and unable to match the Phoenix. “The Phoenix played a great game and we didn’t play well,” she said. “We felt great before the match and there was no reason not to come out and execute our game plan but I don’t want to take away anything from the Phoenix.”