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Ian Harkin
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By Amanda Lulham
Daily Telegraph

MORE than a decade after two “uncoordinated gumbies” played their first national netball league game together, close friends and Australian teammates Liz Ellis and Cath Cox left the court after the final Commonwealth Bank Trophy game yesterday in tears.

Emotions kept in check during their almost clinical grand final victory against Melbourne Phoenix overflowed after the match at Acer Arena in Sydney with Ellis and Cox – two of the survivors from the first CBT 11 years ago – embracing tearfully.

For both, the realisation that the curtain has come down on a era of netball which has helped mould them into the champions they are today was simply overwhelming. The CBT will morph into a new-look Tasman Trophy in 2008 involving both Australian and New Zealand clubs.

This week Cox had reminisced over her first game in the now defunct CBT competition as “a clumsy idiot who couldn’t shoot” – far from her position 11 years later as one of the leading sharpshooters in world netball. Ellis had dusted off old files during the week to look at the few newspaper stories chronicling the start of the competition in 1997.

Coverage was minimal and Ellis was just starting to show signs of the talent which in November will see her lead Australia into battle at the world netball championships in Auckland. “This is the sweetest win of all of them,” said Ellis after she and her TAB Swifts teammates claimed the final CBT title – their second on the trot and fourth in 11 years – with their 45-37 victory over minor premiers Melbourne Phoenix in front of an 8000 strong crowd. “It’s special.”

Cox, whose career has also stretched across the entire 11-year competition, said she still found it hard to believe “what a crap player I was” at the start. “I saw some footage recently and nearly died,” she said. “I was so bad, an absolutely shocking shooter who averaged about 60 per cent a game … uncoordinated and a real gumby. But this competition moulded us into what we are today so it’s sad this was the last game.”

Sadder though were Melbourne Phoenix stars Sharelle McMahon and Ingrid Dick, who like Cox and Ellis have also played every season of the league. They had little to celebrate yesterday after a blindingly fast start by the Swifts left them and their Phoenix teammates reeling – and behind – for the most of the match.

Sure, confident, controlled and slick from the first touch of the ball, the Swifts gave Phoenix ample warning they would have to produce their best ever netball to take the crown from them. And while they tried, it took Phoenix until late in the second quarter to find their feet with the visitors trailing 10-16 at the first break and 19-27 by halftime.

But a ferocious start to the third quarter put Phoenix back within striking distance, with the Melburnians reducing a 13-goal first-half deficit to just four midway through the period before a late rally saw the Swifts take a 34-26 lead into the break. It was a game-winning lead which saw the Swifts win the crown by eight goals in the lowest-scoring grand final in history and their centre, Selina Gilsenan, named Player of the Match.

Superb shooting by Australian duo Cox and Susan Pratley was integral to the Swifts win with Cox netting 22 from 26 (85 per cent) and Pratley 23 from 25 (92 per cent). Fellow Australian shooter McMahon netted 23 from 31 goals at 74 per cent with circle partner Abby Sargeant netting 14 from 23 at 61 per cent.

The new Tasman Trophy will kick off in April between five teams from Australia and five from New Zealand. It is hoped the league, semi-professional in 2008 with top players expected to earn up to $25,000, will in years to come become financially viable enough for netballers to be fully paid professionals – not full-time workers and part-time players. “It’s time for this change,” Cox said. “It’s a step in the right direction for players to become professionals.”