The Queensland Firebirds knew that it would take a Herculean effort if they were to get their first win of the 2019 Super Netball Season against the New South Wales Swifts on Sunday.
The visiting side was coming into the match off the back of two outstanding 8-point wins whereas the Firebirds have struggled to find consistency and form so far this season. But, to some, the advantage was with the Firebirds because Brisbane has a history of being a bogey location for the Swifts with the NSW team having not won a Firebirds homecourt clash in 5 years.
Someone must have forgotten to tell the Swifts.
The match started in the Firebirds’ favour with a quick intercept to centre Jemma Mi Mi. The youngster was a surprise starter given that SPAR Proteas starting centre, Erin Burger, had joined the Firebirds through the week.
Speaking after the game, Gabi Simpson, confirmed that the decision was partly based on form and partly because Burger only joined the side on Friday.
The connections between Gretel Tippett and Abigail Latu-Meafou were on point early in the match as Latu-Meafou used all her footwork tricks to open up the circle for Tippett to drive the baseline.
Tippett started the game well shooting 5/5 and took one rebound and one deflection.
But when the Firebirds opened up a four-goal lead the Swifts called a time-out to regroup.
Speaking after the game, Swifts’ coach, Briony Akle confirmed the break was essential, “The Firebirds are a quality team and when it was clicking for them, we knew we had to watch out. So, we needed to refocus.”
Akle isolated Firebirds wing attack, Caitlyn Nevins, as the thorn in her team’s side from the start, saying, “we know that Nevins is fast, and she is creative and can feed the ball well. She is a tough gig, so we really focused on shutting that down this week.”
On resumption, the Swifts implemented a wide zone defence, which effectively kept Nevins and Tippett off the circle edge. But patient ball work, back and forth over the transverse, allowed the home side to inch their way closer to the edge where Nevins could flick the ball into Tippett.
A positional switch for Swifts’ defenders, Sarah Klau and Maddy Turner eventually paid dividends. With Klau’s additional height, she was a better match for Tippett and was able to put added hands-over pressure on the pass which caused Tippett to spray the ball over the sidelines a few times throughout the match.
Turner’s dogged tagging of Latu-Meafou forced errors from the Firebirds feeders. And these moves coupled with her footwork allowed Turner to come around the body cleanly to snag a gain and an intercept during the first quarter.
Akle confirmed that the switch of her defenders was intentional for those reasons, “it is good for the both of them to switch between those positions. It also gives the opposition something to think about.”
In the Firebirds defence end, Tara Hinchliffe and Kim Jenner were having a hard time matching the pace of the Swifts moving circle. On many occasions, the young Firebirds backline were mere centimetres away from snagging a deflection or intercept but were just not quick enough with those extra few steps.
The duo was also guilty of conceding too many penalties thus allowing their opposition free shots. The pair racked up 37 penalties for the game. By comparison, Klau, Turner and Kate Eddy (who also had a run at goal defence as well as wing defence) got 34 penalties between them.
This contrast in defensive work was what allowed the Swifts to claw back the scoreline and take a five-goal lead into the first break.
The start of the second quarter saw the debuts of the two Proteas for the Firebirds. Burger entered the game at centre, and goal shooter, Lenize Potgieter, came on for Latu-Meafou.
Akle anticipated the switch and moved her defenders back to their regular positions, “we knew that she (Firebirds coach Roselee Jencke) would make those changes and we were well prepared.”
Potgieter started well, scoring the first two goals for her new side. But she was quickly shut down by Klau who shadowed her every move and forced her wide on the baseline. Potgieter wasn’t happy to shoot from range, so looked to dish-off. These extra passes too often fell into the hands of the Swifts.
Despite only arriving in Australia 12 hours prior to the match, Potgieter was happy with her debut performance saying, after the match, “It was a very physical game. I had to mentally prepare myself for it. It went well, I think. I was very happy that Erin was there to keep me calm because that is what she usually does. I am also grateful for the energy the girls kept on having. It’s been great so far.”
The Swifts transition play was flawless. Maddy Proud and Paige Hadley drove the corridors with the duo reoffering with every pass. In a matter of seconds, the ball was shifted from end-to-end with Proud found home-alone on the circle edge placing an uncontested ball into Housby.
Such was the tone for the next two quarters. The Firebirds were shut down or forced into errors. They became despondent and lost their hunger for the ball.
The Swifts, by contrast, were chasing the ball and applying hard, hands-over pressure throughout the court. Every player who stepped onto the court got their hands to either an intercept, pickup or deflection (gain).
Speaking after the game about the match, Simpson said “they play a very clinical form of netball and pushed us into unforced errors which sort of tumbled on from one to another. They were very persistent in that pressure.”
The Swifts looked to be on another goal-scoring spree when tragedy struck.
In the midst of another impressive passage of play, Maddy Proud took the ball in the pocket, but as she came down her right knee buckled. Fans and teammates alike knew that it was bad because the usually bouncy midcourter didn’t get right back up and play on.
As she was carried off the court, to a heart-wrenching Queensland applause, the Swifts pushed their tears aside, made positional changes and carried on.
Their composure until the end made Akle proud, “for Sophie Halpin and Lauren Moore to come on and play like that, and for the team to keep pushing the scoreline, despite losing Maddy is something. It’s a devil in disguise in a way; when you are that close as a team but then lose one of your key members. I was super, super proud of the effort they put out there to finish the job.”
The close-knit side held their emotions in check until the final whistle, when the majority went to check on Proud. The entire squad was in tears as they worked through their warm downs.
The final quarter was a battle for the bonus point and saw the emergence of the Firebirds fighting spirit.
The scoreboard alternated with both sides going on mini-runs. The battle between Klau and Potgieter had settled as Tippett and the South African found a rhythm. The interplay between the two Firebirds goalers showed promise despite the pair having never trained or played together.
After the game, Potgieter admitted that there is a lot of work to before they can play consistently smooth netball. “I have never played with a tall goal attack so that is something I will have to adjust to. I am not used to feeding someone under the post because I have never had to feed a goal attack who is short. I know that she is tall, and she can get those balls, but I am not confident yet.
That is something we will work on. She is everywhere; her presence is everywhere in that circle so picking the right offence and movement for her to cut into the space as well is something I need to work. We will practice all of this at training and we will get better at that.”
As the bonus point battle raged on, Hinchliffe and Jenner came off the body, ensuring they were kept in play. This allowed Hinchliffe to snag an intercept.
The ball was transitioned quickly, and with Burger placing a perfect feed into Potgieter, was finished off allowing the Firebirds to win the quarter 15-14.
Simpson was happy with the performance of their new Protea duo, “they were great. They brought energy and excitement. I think they are going to get better and better as we build our combinations. With Erin, she already has experience with us so she’s confident in adding new strategies to the table and really taking charge in the huddles.”
Despite conceding the final quarter, Akle is still happy with the result, “it was always our mission to win those bonus points. Particularly looking at last year when we didn’t too well with them at all, and we can tell how it affects the competition. So, for us to come out here and get those points it was fantastic.”
That said, Akle isn’t allowing her side to rest on their laurels, despite them now sitting more than one game clear on top of the ladder. “We still aren’t going to take it easy because we want to make the finals.”
After two weeks on the road, the Swifts are at home next week hosting Giants Netball.
The Firebirds are also at home next week and face another top of the table clash, this time against the Melbourne Vixens.
Simpson is still confident her side can get the win against the Vixens, “we have shown it is there. That last quarter today showed it. That Fever game last week showed it. We just need to go back and pinpoint what it is bringing out our best and then you will see it next week that’s for sure.”
New South Wales Swifts 68 defeat Queensland Firebirds 46
(15-10, 34-21, 54-31, 68-46)
Player of the Match: Sarah Klau (Swifts)
Crowd: 3,658 at Queensland State Netball Centre
Abigail Latu-Meafou 5/7 71.4%
Lenize Potgieter 24/24 100%
Gretel Tippett 17/18 94.4%
New South Wales Swifts
Sam Wallace 41/44 93.2%
Helen Housby 27/31% 87.1%
Maddy Proud (Swifts) 32
Helen Housby (Swifts) 22
Paige Hadley (Swifts) 21
Kim Jenner (Firebirds) 21
Tara Hinchliffe (Firebirds) 16
Maddy Turner (Swifts) 15
Gretel Tippett (Firebirds) 5
Lenize Potgieter (Firebirds) 5
Jemma Mi Mi (Firebirds) 4
GS Abigail Latu-Meafou
GA Gretel Tippett
WA Caitlyn Nevins
C Jemma Mi Mi
WD Gabi Simpson
GD Tara Hinchliffe
GK Kim Jenner
Bench: Lenize Potgieter, Erin Burger Laura Clemesha
Changes: Q2 Lenize Potgieter GS, Abigail Latu-Meafou bench, Erin Burger C, Jemma Mi Mi bench, Tara Hinchliffe GK, Kim Jenner GD
Q3 Jemma Mi Mi WA, Caitlyn Nevins bench
Q4 Caitlyn Nevins WA, Kim Jenner GK, Tara Hinchliffe GD, Jemma Mi Mi bench
New South Wales Swifts
GS Sam Wallace
GA Helen Housby
WA Maddy Proud
C Paige Hadley
WD Kate Eddy
GD Sarah Klau
GK Maddy Turner
Bench: Sophie Halpin, Lauren Moore, Amorangi Malesala
Changes: Q2 Sarah Klau GK, Maddy Turner GD, Sophie Halpin WD,
Q3 GD Kate Eddy, Maddy Turner bench, Sophie Halpin C, Lauren Moore WD, Paige Hadley WA, Maddy Proud bench (injured)
Q4 Maddy Turner GD, Kate Eddy WD, Lauren Moore bench
Umpires: Helen George and Jemma Cook
A look at …
Lenize Potgieter’s thoughts on playing Super Netball as preparation for the Vitality Netball World Cup.
“Going up against the new Diamonds goalkeeper was good. It gives me a little insight ahead of the World Cup.
I guess it is good for us to be brought in because it exposes us to all these different styles. It is certainly good for me to play against these different styles of defence; all the Aussies, Jamaicans, and the England players.
It is also good to play consistently under pressure with massive crowds to get ourselves mentally ready.”