It was all change at the top of the Vitality Netball Superleague this week, with Manchester Thunder now level on points with Wasps, after the champions slipped to a last gasp loss to Loughborough Lightning 60-59. Thunder leapfrogged their Midlands rivals to go top of the table on goal average after a thrilling 57-49 away win to Saracens Mavericks, who are now in third place. Lightning move up to fourth, after their fifth successive win, and in such confident form, Sara Bayman’s charges will be hard to stop.
From the first whistle, Loughborough captain Natalie Panagarry was a player inspired, chasing down seemingly hopeless interceptions, which she often converted, and driving her charges forwards. Her midcourt contest with seasoned international Jade Clarke was one of the highlights of the game, and left many wondering how England coach Tracey Neville would decide between the pair when it comes to World Cup selection – Panagarry certainly put her hand up for a ticket to Liverpool on this occasion.
Lightning, inspired by Panagarry and some sharpshooting by 2.03m sensation Mary Cholhok – surely the signing of the season, led by two at the first break and by five midway through the second period before Wasps regrouped. Goal keeper Josie Huckle started to disrupt Lightning’s feed into the circle, and with Katie Harris putting in a superb shooting display for Wasps, the champions led by two at half time.
Wasps midcourt dynamo Bongi Msomi was the stand out in the third quarter, driving cleverly through Lightning’s stifling midcourt defence to release Harris and Dunn into space in the circle – the lead edged out to six goals in Wasps favour with a quarter to go. But Lightning’s new found confidence, and never say die attitude resurfaced, with Panagarry urging on her side and leading by example with a number of clinical interceptions and tips in the midcourt. Loughborough chipped away at the lead, but Wasps held firm, until Hannah Joseph forced an uncharacteristic midcourt error to bring Lightning back within two goals.
With the noisy crowd on the edge of their seats, along with the Sky TV audience (thankfully able to watch the thriller live at home), momentum shifted back to Loughborough and with only seconds to go, Ella Clark found Cholhok under the post with a pinpoint pass. Cholhok netted the goal for the winner, as the final buzzer sounded and the Loughborough bench erupted – in this mood, Bayman’s side are real title contenders. For Mel Mansfield, the challenge will be to return to winning ways ahead of this weekend’s table topping clash away to Manchester Thunder.
For Thunder, this round of matches presented its own challenging fixture, with a trip to Hertfordshire to face the talented Saracens Mavericks side also pushing for a playoffs spot. In a real nail-biter, Mavericks led early on, before the visitors started to establish their trademark speed and rhythm in midcourt to take the initiative. Missing England squad member Gabby Marshall through injury, Mavericks lacked the cohesion displayed in recent weeks, and made a number of uncharacteristic errors which gave the initiative to the Manchester side, which Joyce Mvula and Katherine Turner took full advantage of. At half time, Thunder led by only two, 30-28.
Despite a positive team talk from coach Kat Ratnapala at half time, Mavericks continued to make uncharacteristic errors and with Thunder’s Kerry Almond doing a great job to close down Aussie shooter Karyn Bailey, the Manchester team moved seven goals clear with 15 minutes to play. The final quarter was a tight tussle with neither side willing to give ground, but Manchester had established an unassailable lead, and ran out 57-49 winners, leaving Mavericks to consider what might have been.
TeamBath welcomed back Serena Guthrie from injury to take a hard fought 56-50 win over Celtic Dragons, which left Bath in fifth place in the league table. The home side struggled to find any sort of rhythm, despite the best efforts of Guthrie, Allison and Shaw to marshal the midcourt, and Bath can be thankful that Sophie Drakeford-Lewis continued her excellent run of shooting form to keep them ahead of a spirited Welsh side. Coach Anna Stembridge will be hoping that her charges can find some form across this weekend, with games against Strathclyde Sirens and Severn Stars scheduled.
Both Sirens and Stars are currently below Bath in the league table, but neither is a push over and Stembridge will be hoping her charges can settle into some sort of rhythm if they are to mount a serious challenge to the teams above them. In the other matches in the round, London Pulse pushed Severn Stars all the way but could not string together enough possession to take their second win of the season. Stars took the points after a 60-51 away win. Meanwhile, Surrey Storm held off a spirited challenge from the visiting Strathclyde Sirens side 53-44 to remain sixth in the league. If the Surrey side is to challenge for a play off place, they need to retain that winning feeling when they travel to Saracens Mavericks in the next round.