Giants have started the Suncorp Super Netball season with a victory over last year’s grand final rival and reigning premier, Sunshine Coast Lightning.
There were many side stories leading into the game. The grand final re-match, the comebacks from injury wilderness, celebrating the 300th game of a revered coach, players coming down to earth after the Commonwealth Games, and the sad and inexplicable absence of one of the greatest midcourters of all time.
The story after the final whistle was the Giants’ 20-goal turnaround from last year’s grand final drubbing. Was the absence of Laura Langman from the Lightning team worth 20 goals? Perhaps. Their biggest struggle was through the midcourt.
The statistics tell a story – Kim Green amassed an incredible 50 feeds in her comeback from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery, and the second-highest on court was her midcourt partner Serena Guthrie, with 34. The Giants totalled 28 more feeds than Lightning, an indicator of the struggle Kelsey Browne, Laura Scherian and Madeline McAuliffe had in working the ball into the Lightning circle.
Around nine months into ACL rehabilitation many patients undergo a return-to-sport test to determine whether their new knee is up to the rigours of sport. Green passed that hurdle months ago, but nothing compares to the experience of testing it at the highest level of competition.
She moved confidently, but with a certain level of caution. The blistering bursts of speed are not quite there yet, but she compensated with smart timing and positioning. There were gasps of concern from the crowd as the midcourt legend fell during the final quarter, but she carefully picked herself up and carried on. She admitted to having an unusual level of nerves before the game, and her emotions spilled over afterwards.
“It was really special. Kris (Kristiana Manu’a) and I were in rehab for a very, very long time together so it was a good win for both of us,” she said, through tears.
Manu’a made her Suncorp Super Netball debut after a long-term Achilles injury, facing Caitlin Bassett from the second quarter onwards. It was a remarkable performance from a relatively inexperienced player who gave away 11cm height to the Australian captain.
Sam Poolman had early success, muscling Bassett towards the edge of the circle and creating doubt in the minds of the Lightning feeders; but midway through the second quarter Bassett worked into the game and Lightning hit the lead for the first time.
Giants coach Julie Fitzgerald drew on her 300 games of experience and timed her move impeccably, bringing Manu’a on to unsettle the timing into Bassett. The rookie didn’t have many statistical gains, but her agility around Bassett and contesting around circle edge were enough to keep Bassett to 36 goals.
During the great Irene van Dyk’s heyday, the defensive benchmark for success was keeping her goal tally below 40 goals. If that same mark is used for Bassett, Manu’a’s performance was a huge success – restricting the Australian captain to her lowest total in a full game in this competition.
“It didn’t really click that I was playing her (Bassett) until the beginning of the fourth quarter. I was just trying to find my feet and get the hang of the speed. She’s such a good player, such a talent and just to get out there and give it my best shot was my goal,” said Manu’a.
“Hearing Kimmy (Green) talk, it kind of hits home how much it actually means (her return from injury). It was emotional, it meant a lot. We’ve been sitting out for so long and to finally get the opportunity is amazing.”
Credit can also be attributed to the defensive work of the Giants midcourt and evergreen goal defence Bec Bulley. Bulley was awarded player of the match for restricting Australian Diamond Steph Wood to just 15 goals, but more importantly, stifling her movement through court.
Lightning coach Noelene Taurua lamented that her team “didn’t attack the game in attack or defence”. The pace of the game was somewhat hesitant and careful, resulting in a low-scoring battle – Lightning’s equal-lowest score in Suncorp Super Netball.
“It was a bit meek in some respects,” Taurua told AAP.
The ball handling from both sides lacked touch at this early stage of the season. Potential intercepts became fumbled deflections. Cross-court swings around both circles were sent over the sideline. The Giants ended with slightly more turnovers, but it was the timing of Lightning’s disconnection that hurt. They took the lead only once, during the second quarter, and drew level once in the third quarter but couldn’t push ahead.
Five consecutive goals was the biggest run for either team. Although the final margin was only three goals, the game never really felt within Lightning’s control. Despite the scrappy game, the Giants showed that they have all the elements of a premiership contender.
Giants 54 def Sunshine Coast Lightning 51
(15-12, 27-15, 42-38, 54-51)
Player of the Match: Rebecca Bulley (Giants)
Harten 33/36 92%
Pettitt 21/28 75%
Bassett 36/41 88%
Wood 15/16 94%
Bulley (Giants) 3
Pretorius (Lightning) 3
Price (Giants) 2
Starting line ups
GS Jo Harten
GA Susan Pettitt
WA Kim Green
C Serena Guthrie
WD Jamie-Lee Price
GD Rebecca Bulley
GK Sam Poolman
Changes: Q2 GK Kristiana Manu’a
GS Caitlin Bassett
GA Steph Wood
WA Kelsey Browne
C Laura Scherian
WD Madeline McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Geva Mentor
Changes: Q3 C McAuliffe WD Erena Mikaere
What they said
Julie Fitzgerald, Giants Coach
“I’m not going to cry, I’ve been crying all weekend! (laughs)”
How the game has changed
“You look at all the game presentation and how everything’s happened tonight and it just shows how far the game has evolved in recent years.”
You only made one change, has the new points system changed how you use your bench?
“I think it’s naïve to suggest you’re not going to be quite as keen to go to your bench, but in a game like that where it’s so tight you probably wouldn’t have anyway. But I do think there will be occasions where you’re not going to risk losing that point in a quarter to blood your bench and I just think that’s a reality of it that we all have to accept. Also the fact we can have additional timeouts now means that when you feel that they just need a little break, we can give them a break rather than having to substitute them, which is what I did in one of the time outs. I didn’t have a lot to say, I just wanted them to have a little breather and regroup.”
Is it frustrating to lose two quarters by one goal each and lose those bonus points?
“Yeah it is frustrating. Particularly as happened in yesterday’s game I think it’s going to come down to whose centre pass it is, and that’s really frustrating in some ways.”
Her thinking with the change in defence (substituting Poolman with Manu’a)
“I think we’re absolutely blessed we’ve got three world class defenders, so we can swap that defence end around quite well. Sam came out and I thought had a great first quarter, start of the second quarter but then they got a couple through too easily, so we mixed it up and changed it. But we could have easily changed again if we had to, all three of them are interchangeable.”
Her rivalry with Lightning coach Noelene Taurua
“It’s funny, I’ve known Noelene for so many years. When I was with the Swifts we used to go over there for pre-season matches against the Magic, and then I took over from her as the Magic coach. But I have enormous admiration for her, it’s a rivalry that I think is built on mutual admiration.”
What did it mean to have Green and Manu’a back after long-term injury?
“It meant an awful lot. When we were in the tunnel just before we ran on, it really hit you what a big moment it was for them. And it’s always emotional when you come back from injury and you’ve had a really hard slog of a rehab, and then to do it in front of this massive crowd on our home court, it was awesome for them. (They were) obviously nervous, but they ran that out very quickly.”
Kim Green, Giants
How did it feel out there?
“My feeds were probably not where I wanted them to be, but all-in-all just happy to get the win to be honest.”
How excited were you to be back?
“We made mention before we got out there that both teams have had a really long pre-season and would both want that win. So today it was just about making sure that we did the little things right when it mattered. I think we came away with the win based on the fact that we had some really good changes come on, and was able to mix it up, but we also mixed it up in attack which was good.”
Sharing your comeback with Kristiana Manu’a
“Yeah, it was really special. Kris and I were in rehab for a very, very long time together so it was a good win for both of us (cries). Sorry, she’s over there (cries). Absolutely. Tears of joy. Very happy.”
Did you have nerves?
“Absolutely, I don’t normally get nervous before a game but that was a tough one.”
Was confidence in the knee in the back of your mind?
“No, not at all, I think just performing well.”
Does last year’s grand final result play on the team’s minds?
“The fact that Kris and I are in the team and KIP (Kiera Austin) as well. It’s a little different in the fact that us three weren’t on the court last year. But going up against the best is really important for the first round, to get it underway and know where we stand. Obviously we have a lot of work to do, but to know that we can come away with a scrappy win like that is really important too.”
Julie Fitzgerald’s 300th game
“She’s pretty special. Just a legend of the game, and a special day for her, a special day for Kris, a special day for me. The fact that we got over the line we can really celebrate today.”
Kristiana Manu’a, Giants
How did it feel to be out there?
“It felt so good, just to finally get in the change rooms and be part of the prep talk, and be part of the prep and finally get out there and play was ‘beyond’.”
Debuting against Caitlin Bassett
“Well I didn’t really click that I was playing her until about the beginning of the fourth quarter, I was just trying to find my feet and get the hang of the speed. She’s such a good player, such a talent and just to get out there and give it my best shot was my goal.”
Did you feel emotional coming back after such a long time off
“Hearing Kimmy (Green) talk just then it kind of just hit home how much it actually means. Gosh, I’m crying like her! We’re sooks here aren’t we! It was emotional, it meant a lot. We’ve been sitting out for so long and to finally get the opportunity is amazing.”
It was such a long rehab for you
“Yeah, I’m not counting! It was 18 months and however many weeks, it was long and I’m just glad to be out there.”
How do you keep yourself motivated (during a long injury)?
“The team was such a motivation, seeing how well they did last year. It’s not easy to get out on court so my plan was just to train hard and hopefully get on, which eventually happened.”
Cover image: Danny Dalton