The penultimate round. In previous years, the Vitality Netball Superleague has been decided weeks in advance, with the semifinal line up all too easy to predict, and most pundits able to name the ultimate winners before the end of the regular season. But the 2019 version of the competition is a different beast – with one round of the league to play, yet more shocks and surprises mean that the play offs line up is still to be confirmed.
Manchester Thunder, league leaders earlier this season stuttered and failed to counteract a highly motivated TeamBath side when they welcomed the south west team to the Thunderdome last weekend. Despite taking an early lead, Thunder looked strangely disjointed and the full court physical pressure from the visitors soon started to bear dividends. TeamBath knew that a loss would see them drop out of the top four, and inspired by midcourt dynamo Serena Guthrie, started to heap the pressure onto the home side. Despite Thunder mixing their line up, replacing Ellie Cardwell for Joyce Mvula in the second half, Bath refused to be unsettled by a different attacking style from the home side while retaining their defensive structure.
With Kim Commane and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis once again sharing the shooting load to great effect, Bath powered on, and took a welcome victory which leaves them level on points with Thunder (2nd) and Loughborough Lightning (4th), three points behind Wasps. Bath now face London Pulse in the final round of matches, while Thunder coach Karen Greig will be looking to steady the ship and consolidate second place in the league before her side travels to face Surrey Storm.
As many expected Loughborough took the points from their meeting with bottom club London Pulse, but Lightning were made to battle all the way to a 66-62 victory. Inspired by the continued return from injury of England captain Ama Agbeze, Pulse were, at times, unrecognisable from the disjointed, unconnected unit which took to the court earlier in the year. Attacking movements were fluid and well timed, and the finishing clinical from Slater and Semple as Pulse took a five goal lead into the first interval.
But the initial hope for an impressive win for London fans soon turned to disappointment as Loughborough started to take control: with the midcourt well marshalled once again by captain Natalie Panagarry, Lightning began to build momentum and once Mary Cholhok started to find her range, the visitors started to motor. The second quarter went to the visitors 22-13 and the damage had been done. Pulse rallied again in the third quarter, but by this stage the gap to Loughborough had become too great to bridge, and Lightning took the win in a “what might have been” game for the home side.
Wasps travelled to Scotland to face Strathclyde Sirens, ultimately taking a 56-41 win which sealed their place at the top of the table. But they were made to battle hard by a feisty Scottish performance, and with the home crowd cheering every Sirens success to the rafters, Wasps were made to fight for every possession. Once again, the Wasps win was founded on a superb defensive performance, anchored by captain Hannah Knights who used her long reach and great anticipation to frustrate Scottish initiatives into the attacking circle, and took several flying intercepts to shift the momentum to her side. Wasps seem to have put early season losses out of their system and are running into ominously good form as the play offs approach.
Saracens Mavericks kept the pressure on the top four with a 62-48 win over Severn Stars in front of the Sky TV cameras. Stars put up a strong fight in the early stages, inspired once again by a great defensive performance from Sam Cook, and led 13-11 at the first break. After some unexpected losses earlier in the year, Mavericks needed to regroup and take the win, as well as improving on goal difference for the season, and responded early in the second period.
With George Fisher providing a moving, accurate target in the circle, and Jo Trip marshalling Mavericks’ defensive efforts with some fast footwork and clever use of angles to close down the space, the Hertfordshire side soon took the game by the scruff of the neck. Stars rallied briefly in a highly contested third quarter, but ran out of steam in the final 15 minutes to enable Mavs to take the win and keep the play off spots within their sights. They welcome Strathclyde Sirens to their home court in the final round of regular season matches, but will have to rely on other results going their way to sneak into the top four.
In the final match of the round, Celtic Dragons defeated Surrey Storm 58-51. And while the match made no inroads on the play off spots, both teams were competing for pride, and the chance to contest the end of season Fast Five All Stars competition. Dragons took the moral victory, as well as the win, to move into seventh place in the table, one place ahead of Storm.