In the year since England’s famous victory in the Commonwealth Games final on the Gold Coast, much has been written and said about the relative strength of the Vitality Netball Superleague, and whether it provides sufficient competition to develop the England teams of the future.
On the evidence of the 2019 season, it is clear that the league has never been more competitive, with weekly twists and turns which keep the armchair fan guessing on the eventual outcome of this year’s title. And while there are still question marks concerning the overall standard of the competition, compared with the Suncorp and ANZ leagues, it is clear that the gaps between the top and bottom teams in the league are closing fast, and no game is a guaranteed win for any team.
Top of the shocks this week was the unexpected defeat (on paper at least) of league leaders Manchester Thunder by Severn Stars 47-50. From the first whistle, Thunder seemed uncharacteristically disjointed, with missed connections and unforced errors littering the game. Although the home side led 13-11 at the first interval, Thunder were clearly not the well-drilled machine of previous rounds, and with Stars GK Sam Cook slowly wearing down the rhythm and focus of Thunder’s GS Joyce Mvula, Stars slowly edged ahead.
Cook and Jodi Ann Ward continued to hassle the Thunder offensive line into mistakes and with the scores level at 36 all with 15 minutes to play, an upset was potentially on the cards. Stars held their nerve in the final period, despite some blistering defensive pressure from the Manchester side, and edged ahead once again to score their third win in a row. A play off spot may be beyond Stars, but their sights are firmly set on a place at the Fast 5 All Stars tournament, and their focus and clinical finishing should not be underestimated by other title contenders.
Wasps took full advantage of Thunder’s stumble, moving into second place in the table on goal difference after a 58-51 win over Saracens Mavericks. Despite trailing at the end of the first quarter, Wasps were focused and determined throughout, and with Hannah Knights and Fran Williams putting on a defensive masterclass, their pressure forced Mavericks’ front line into unprovoked errors which Dunn was quick to convert for the reigning champions.
Mel Mansfield’s team was relentless in its through-court defensive work, with Jade Clarke and Amy Flanagan denying Mavericks’ midcourt space and shutting down potential opportunities with great anticipation and reach. With play off places at stake, third placed Team Bath and fourth placed Loughborough Lightning played out a thrilling match to please die hard fans and unaffiliated observers alike, which Bath eventually won 57-55. At the heart of the South West side’s victory was a dogged defensive effort, which shut down countless Loughborough offensive moves and created numerous turnovers.
The lead changed hands numerous times during an entertaining match which saw Summer Artman and Eboni Usoro-Brown demonstrate the strength of their defensive partnership to close down opportunities for Loughborough’s Clark and Cholhok, while, in attack, Sophie Drakeford Lewis showed why she is one of England’s most promising shooting talents, combining well once again with Aussie import Kim Commane to keep Bath ahead.
Despite the best efforts of Loughborough captain Nat Panagarry, once again a key part of her team’s every move through court, Bath were simply too strong, and opened up a three point lead over Lightning, with four games remaining in the regular season. Meanwhile, with two losses in their past two games, Loughborough will be looking for a return to winning ways if they are to ensure they make the play offs.
Surrey Storm, who beat Loughborough in the previous round, continued their own good run of form, with their second win of the week – this time over London Pulse 56-53. In a game identified by Storm coach Mikki Austin as crucial to her team’s hopes of a place in the season-end Fast Five tournament, the Surrey team never lost focus and, despite the lead changing hands on several occasions throughout the game, maintained their structure and stuck to game plan.
South African shooter Sigi Burger was once again the lynch pin of the Storm attack, and with midcourter Yaz Parsons showing some of the skills which earned her an England squad call up in previous seasons, Pulse found it difficult to generate sufficient turnover ball to take the initiative. Despite registering an impressive win over Mavericks in the previous round, Pulse struggled to establish their rhythm through court and although Ama Agbeze and Joyce Ngwira tried every trick in their internationally-learned defensive handbook to generate impetus from the back, the London side failed to build any serious momentum.
Their first season in the Superleague has certainly been a baptism of fire for the London team and it is to be hoped that they can find some consistency in 2020. Otherwise, another long season beckons.The final game of the round saw the biggest winning margin, with Celtic Dragons defeating Strathclyde Sirens 59-49. In a hotly contested and, at times, scrappy game, it was Dragons who maintained their rhythm more effectively.
A year after sustaining a potentially career-ending injury in the same fixture, the Welsh side’s midcourt powerhouse Bethan Dyke was back to her bustling best, relentless on both attack and defence to keep her side moving forwards. Sirens failed to capitalise on the opportunities which came their way, but kept battling until the final – unlike previous seasons, where the scoreline could have blown out in favour of the winners. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, in netball, the times are most definitely a-changing.