GIANTS Netball 60 def Queensland Firebirds 58
Before the season has even started, I am putting Giants Netball and the Queensland Firebirds to finish in the top four of the Super Netball Competition for season 2021. A big call, but one I am willing to back.
The GIANTS look re-invigorated and free from the drama and shackles that plagued them throughout 2020; and the Firebirds, well, they have Gretel Bueta back and their favourite daughter, Kim Ravillion, has come home after a few seasons away and has slipped back into the purple dress like she never took it off.
If ever there was a preseason match to set the tone for the upcoming season, this was it. The starting seven for the Firebirds was exactly what fans would hope for. New coach Megan Anderson opted for her strongest line-up.
Bueta looks like she has had no time away from court after the birth of her first child and her combination with Romelda Aiken picked up where it left off. Their height is such an advantage and they exploit their opposition so well when they get it right.
Speaking of mothers out on court, as the whistle blew to start the game there were THREE who took the court to start the match. As well as Bueta, there was Ravaillion and for the GIANTS , April Brandley; it a great step forward for netball to showcase and support mothers as they return to the sport at the elite level.
In 2021, the Firebirds have a line up similar to what we saw in 2020, with the addition of Bueta and Ravaillion they are stacked to the brim with talent. On paper they look impressive, in the flesh they look like they will cause plenty of headaches to their opposition. Their defensive line up is one that has been spoken about many times; Kim Jenner and Tara Hinchliffe are a formidable goal keeper and goal defence option. With Gabi Simpson and Ravaillion in support, it is the back line that netball dreams are made of.
Jenner and Hinchliffe are young and enthusiastic, they love a physical game and they play off each other with ease. With Rudi Ellis an option to slip into goal keeper as an impact player, there is plenty to like about the defensive end of the Firebirds. Against the Giants, Ellis took some screaming intercepts, proving she is worthy of some more time on court.
In attack, Laura Dunkley looks likely to take the reins in the spot of wing attack and with Anderson having the Ace card of Tippah Dwan up her sleeve, there will never be a moment in the upcoming season for the defensive opposition to relax on court. Dwan was a highlight of season 2020 and showcased the depth and talent that lies just beneath the surface of SSN. Given her break as teams were able to extend their squads, she made an instant impact and proved handy during the super-shot minutes. During this preseason match the Firebirds lost nothing when Dwan was on court. If the goal attack position is to be shared between Bueta and Dwan, defence will have to roll with the changes, and fast, as both have very different playing styles.
There is a familiarity that is comforting to watch between Ravaillion, Bueta and Aiken, they have a connection that does not require words, and the ball speed through the attack has gone up a notch having Ravaillion back in the mix. This trio will be looking to recreate the form that saw them enjoy premiership success in the last years of the ANZ competition.
Julie Fitzgerald’s GIANTS look confident. If you can strut on a netball court, that is what they are doing. From the sidelines looking in, it seems that their swagger has everything to do with their captain, Jo Harten. When Harten is confident her team follows and she looks like she is ready to take on the 2021 season with some gusto. If Harten is warming up, teams should be taking notice now. Though if GIANT #2 has decided the trophy will be in their cabinet by seasons end, it will take an army to stop her. At her best Harten is one of the most talented, clever and passionate netballers of this era, she is the player that can lead the GIANTS to victory this season.
The GIANTS were lacking some star power with new Diamond Keira Austin and Amy Parmenter occupied elsewhere, and this opened the door for young Sophie Dwyer to step into goal attack, with Harten at goal shooter. Dwyer has been highly spoken about for a few seasons and for a player who is still so young, it was not hard to see why Fitzgerald wants to keep her as an option.
The Firebirds are one of the more physical teams in the competition and were a great match up against the GIANTS; Dwyer was tasked with Jenner as her opposition. A brilliant player, Jenner enjoys a body-on-body style of defence which can wear players down. She challenges every ball and is not afraid to give away some contacts to give herself the mental edge over her opposition. Dwyer did not buy into that once. With maturity beyond her years, she continued to drive hard for the ball and then back herself under the post. No Keira. No worries.
The absence of Parmenter left the wing defence position free for Kristiana Manu’a and she was impressive during the match in her time in that position. She also rotated into goal defence, but it was in wing defence where she was most effective. Manu’a has wonderful timing and a great read of the game, if she was to be used differently this year, as perhaps more of an impact player for the Giants, they would get their money’s worth – with some change to pocket.
Tilly McDonnell started at goal keeper for the Giants with Brandley in goal defence for support and McDonnell looked to be relishing her time against Aiken; not as easy assignment for even the most veteran of defenders, but there is something to be said for fearlessness in youth and McDonnell showed again why she should be used in 2021. Her impact is undeniable and her energy is palpable.
Jamie-Lee Price had a ruthless battle in the middle with Ravaillion. Before the first centre pass the two greeted each warmly and shared a laugh; once the whistle blew it was every centre for themselves. They are two of the toughest competitors in the game and it is an experience to watch these two athletes battle it out. Ravaillion looks to be in the best shape of her career and Price is one of the toughest athletes in sport, both are crucial to the success that their teams are looking to have in 2021. There were plenty of elbows to ribs and neither player gave an inch, the umpires letting them work it out between them.
A player who continues to impress is Maddie Hay. She has all but sewn up the starting position at wing attack for the GIANTS and given that she is actually a wing defence, it is easy to be excited about what the former training-partner has been able to achieve since getting her shot last season. Hay had her own battle with Gabi Simpson who found some great form towards the back-end of last year, and some of the drives that Hay had to commit to with Simpson contesting for absolutely every ball were not for the faint-hearted. That is the one thing you know you will always get with Simpson; she tests every part of her opponent. If there is a weakness, she will find it and expose it. She also wears players down, as this was a preseason game, she had a couple of different players in wing attack but it did not matter, the intensity that Simpson played the preseason game with sets her up well for a strong performance over the season.
The game itself was an arm wrestle – it started in a flustered fashion as many of the preseason games have. It took almost half of the first quarter for both teams to settle. The intensity of the game was felt right from the start and for a preseason game it was of high quality. The ball speed especially from the Firebirds was hard to keep up with and their hand-over-ball in defence was slowing down the GIANTS’ attack and they were working very hard to get the ball to post. At the end of the first quarter the Firebirds were up by two points, after Dwan sunk a beautiful super-shot.
The GIANTS came out strongly in the second quarter and as Dwyer found her confidence and connection with Harten, the Giants jumped out to a 21-15 lead early. Ellis in goal keeper for the Firebirds allowed Harten some room on the baseline and she exposed her a few times with her timing, but when Ellis was able to set-up in front, she was dangerous.
At times in 2020 Harten was visibly frustrated and it affected her game, Jenner was trying her best to throw Harten off, but to her credit she absorbed the obvious attention Jenner was applying and worked her way through the quarter. The Firebirds took a time out and re-grouped well, the GIANTS had let them back into the game, a lapse in concentration saw the score locked at 32 goals each at half time.
For the last 30 minutes it was easy to forget you were at a preseason game, it felt like a regular season match. Both teams seemed quite desperate for the win and players were putting their bodies on the line to get it.
Firebirds were looking comfortable in defence and had caused a number of held balls on the circle edge for the GIANTS, Harten moved into goal attack to try and create some more drives and put pressure on the Firebirds in transition. On two occasions Harten threw her body at the ball to gain possession, and her efforts lifted her team mates.
Sam Poolman entered the game and the contest between her and Aiken was as good as it always has been. They know each other’s game so well, but it is never a disappointment when they battle it out on court. Poolman hassled Aiken just enough to cause some turnovers and as some luck went the way of the GIANTS, they started to look like they were in control, and were up by four goals heading into the final fifteen.
Both teams should be very proud of the quality they produced in the last quarter. It was the type of netball you would expect in a high-stakes contest. Jenner took a superb intercept to level the scores 52 a piece with just over five minutes to go. It was here the GIANTS needed to show the grit and determination that had eluded them last season.
Harten stepped it up a notch with some fearless leadership, going to post in the super-shot minutes to sink a beauty, but she also played it safe and knew when to use a goal worth one point to maintain their lead, but keep the score board ticking over.
In the end the GIANTS showed resilience to win the game 60-58. The game came down to the last few minutes and the team in orange held their nerve. The Firebirds came close and will be happy to have played some of their training partners, giving them some experience in a tough match. The Firebirds will be a force this season, they will hit full-stride as the season unfolds, and it will be great to watch. The GIANTS will take enormous confidence that they were able to get the win without Austin and Parmenter. They have a steely look in 2021, but their key to success is Harten. Their captain needs to be able to keep a cool head under pressure and lead at the same time. If she can find the right
balance, there is no reason she cannot lead her team to a grand final in 2021.