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SWIFTS DEATH HURTS
Katie Peart
Herald Sun

MELBOURNE Phoenix was denied the fairytale ending – bookend premierships – by a switched-on Sydney Swifts on their home turf yesterday. The loss was a double blow. Compounding their misery, Phoenix players had to come to terms with the death of their club, yesterday’s grand final signalling the end of the Commonwealth Bank Trophy, which will be replaced by the Tasman Trophy.

For Phoenix coach Julie Hoornweg, the 45-37 defeat – in the lowest scoring grand final ever – and the demise of her club had clearly not hit home yet. Hoornweg referred to having to “go back to the drawing-board” after the match but quickly corrected herself. “We don’t have to, do we?” she said. “We don’t exist any more, that’s it. Gone.”

Phoenix and Kestrels have now disbanded, replaced by a single Victorian franchise for next year’s 10-team Tasman Trophy. Phoenix, the most successful club in the 11-year history of the Commonwealth Bank Trophy, had won its first title back in 1997 and was intent on farewelling the competition with the final flag.

For co-captain Sharelle McMahon, a foundation player along with veteran centre Ingrid Dick, yesterday’s loss was a shattering end to an era, particularly because the five-time champion had had its chances against the Swifts. The visitors had three more attempts at goal than the Swifts and trailed by only four goals midway through the third term at Sydney’s Acer Arena.

“It’s very emotional,” a visibly upset McMahon said. “It’s extremely disappointing, we definitely had more chances throughout the game, which is disappointing but we couldn’t quite make the goals go in when we needed to. I guess reflecting what it means, it’s the end of Phoenix, it’s very sad.”

Hoornweg said it was an emotionally draining year on several levels for Phoenix and the club had hoped to honour the memory of Burnley tunnel victim Damian McDonald, husband of team manager Bree McDonald, with a win yesterday. “I’m so very proud of them, it’s been an honour to coach these players,” she said.

The amped-up Swifts jumped Phoenix in the first quarter, outscoring their opponents 16-10. Errors at the top of its goal circle and some sloppy delivery cost Phoenix dearly, with Australian defenders Selina Gilsenan, Mo’onia Gerrard and Liz Ellis quick to pounce.

Hoornweg reacted quickly to try and inject some system in attack, benching wing attack Wendy Jacobsen, introducing wing defence Renae Hallinan and moving Natasha Chokljat from wing defence to wing attack. But nothing went Phoenix’s way in the second term. Player of the match, Gilsenan, was first to every loose ball and some dubious umpiring calls went against McMahon in a torrid goal circle, dominated by Ellis and Gerrard.

Swifts goalers Cath Cox and Susan Pratley missed only one goal between them for the first half, propelling the home side to a 27-19 halftime lead.

Successive intercepts by Hallinan at the start of the third quarter gave Phoenix some hope, and midway through that term it had pulled back the deficit to four goals. But the opportunity went begging as McMahon and goal shooter Abby Sargent missed four shots in a row.

“I think that probably was our chance,” McMahon said. “When you’re eight goals down at three-quarter time, it’s very hard to get back against a team like Sydney, not impossible, but very difficult and we needed to make the most of that.” Ellis and Gerrard put Sargent (14 goals at 61 per cent) and McMahon (23 goals at 74 per cent) under tremendous pressure with their nagging defence. Unable to convert the opportunities, Phoenix trailed 34-26 at three-quarter time.

While Ellis described the victory as “the sweetest” of the four premierships she has won, Hoornweg said it was probably her greatest disappointment. “That’s what it’s all about, history can be history, but you have to step up and play and we didn’t step up today. It’s disappointing for the girls, they’re great athletes, they’re great teammates, they’re great people.”