NSW Swifts v GIANTS Netball
So many factors are bandied around before the grand final – experience versus rookie courage? Grit versus composure? Week off, or a solid challenging run home? World Champion Diamond Sharon Finnan-White had an in-depth chat with Netball Scoop writer Andrew Kennedy, in advance of the future classic between two Australian powerhouse rivals.
“I believe the Giants have peaked slightly ahead of the Swifts due to having played the majority of the season with the same starting seven”, she observed. “This should hold them in good stead for this grand final match.”
At the same time the Swifts had their own trumps up their sleeve. “The GIANTS bench in Kristiana Manu’a, Tilly McDonell and Matisse Leatherbarrow have not had a lot of court time so if coach Julie Fitzgerald needs to call on them to step up in this match, particularly for a full game, they may not be up to the task.”
It’s the opposite case for the Swifts, whose bench players have seen large swathes of court time even during the last four weeks, including a full sixty-minute game for Nat Haythornthwaite, giving the English midcourter form and confidence. “One of the advantages of rotating players, especially early in the season, is it allows the coach to have confidence knowing that her bench players can have an impact in any game, particularly if they are needed in finals matches”.
For the first time in at least 40 years, including ANZ Premiership, Commonwealth Bank Trophy, and the ESSO-Mobil league – the grand final is a derby between two Sydney teams. The other times two teams from the same state faced off was when Adelaide Thunderbirds demolished Adelaide Ravens in 1999, and when in 1994 Adelaide Contax narrowly defeated Adelaide Garville. No matter what the dreams and agenda of each team and the individual players, to win a premiership is to write history.
The 2021 season has required resilience and proactivity like none before. Coaches and management have striven to put athletes into their best physical and mental position despite being away from home for up to two months, missing family, friends, and their home training track and especially their fans. So, which of Swifts and GIANTS will play the right cards in this epic showdown?
As they approach the stadium
“An athlete will always have some nerves, regardless of what venue they play at,” said Finnan-White, regarding the occasion itself as more important than the unusual case of both teams playing away from home crowds. “Teams will desperately want the win, as although they share the same state, there is still plenty of rivalry between them, and both teams will be playing for their fans and family back in Sydney who are going through a difficult time with the lockdown.”
The way that the butterflies affect each individual is hard to predict from the outside, but those variables have been planned for weeks in advance by the coach and support staff.
“Each player would have a pre-game routine, such as listening to music on the way to the stadium and in the change room, self-imagery to reinforce their individual and team game plan which they practiced at training, and to see themselves doing this well rather than having doubts or negative thoughts. Deep breathing exercises and stretching are other ways to relax before a match. The team would also have a sports psychologist who would have been working with them as individuals and as a team throughout the season and in the lead up to the grand final match.”
The approach to the grand final is as much about group connection and routine as it is about the individual getting in the zone. “The team might start the morning of the match with an easy walk outside after breakfast followed by a low intensity team training session to reinforce the team tactics and strategies for the match. They would also have a team meeting before departing for the stadium for some final words of encouragement from the coach and captain. When they walk into the stadium there may be some nerves but each athlete will know that they have prepared well. It’s all about the preparation so you can feel confident going into these big matches. “
Review – Major semi final: Swifts won 62-61
MVP Sam Wallace
The big lesson for GIANTS was needing to engage their energy in defence much earlier. In the first quarter they went down 12-20, with their back line sluggish and perhaps looking better than they should due to simple Swifts errors. “GIANTS need to improve on their first ball contest”, said Finnan-White, “their relentless, hard, one on one pressure.”
Straight up Maddie Hay was guilty of three turnovers in fifteen minutes, more than she totals in some entire matches. Simply eliminating errors and being more tenacious allowed her team to claw back. The final quarter saw GIANTS’ best return of four gains, but it was too late. It should be obvious without explicit coaching that changes of tactics and intensity need to happen immediately, and no lapse in defence will go unpunished.
GIANTS also were squashed into a chase mentality in the first half. While their attack was frugal with possession and only 15 turnovers all up, the accuracy of 79% (88% 1-point, 50% 2-point) was still a thorn in their side. Jo Harten’s six rebounds kept them in it, but errant super shots were simply not worthwhile. In the next week in the preliminary final against Fever they halved super shot attempts and made 86% in total for a famous victory.
Meanwhile in the major semi-final, Swifts dragged wing attack Paige Hadley to the bench twice, and her replacement Haythornthwaite committed two turnovers in 12 minutes. They also kept mixing up wing defence from Tayla Fraser to Lauren Moore and back a few times. As Finnan-White observed, “We saw Fraser interrupt Hay’s usual style of play in the semi-final by tagging her every move which took Maddie out of the game in the first half of that match. Whoever gets the start on Hay will need to apply one on one defensive pressure off the centre pass and be able to recover quickly to delay her drive and entry on to the circle which is the best position to feed the ball”.
Both defenders did a fair job excluding the drives of Hay, and perhaps Moore’s height and circle defence experience made her more effective, at least on the stats sheet, with two gains. “Hay is also good at feeding from off the circle, so consistent hands over ball pressure will help to force the ball high to make it easier for Sarah Klau and Maddy Turner to take an intercept. It’s the defensive pressure outside of the circle which creates those opportunities.” The right decisions in substitutions are vital, and that might mean making no changes at all.
Swifts shooters v GIANTS defenders
There is true versatility in both lines, with Swifts holding a slim advantage on paper. Sam Wallace has two MVP performances against GIANTS this year, and Helen Housby is a proven clinical finisher in pressure situations. Their dynamic balance is that the Englishwoman outpaces almost all defenders with her decisive drives, while Wallace can dictate the hold and take the front or back space when she wishes.
However, Finnan-White was concerned about the headspace of the NSW goal attack – “A gutsy team culture is a winning formula however a lot depends on whether Housby’s head is in the game. We have seen some inconsistency in her performances throughout the season, however, in her most recent matches she has stepped up and shown us that she is one of the world’s best goal attacks and can lift her team.”
Housby and Wallace are astute in resetting to feeders. Neither of the two are in the top 20 for turnovers while both GIANTS shooters are in the top three for errors. They also shoot at 89% for the year, and have a total changeup of timing available with Sophie Garbin either playing wide at goal attack to open the middle channel and quick run to Wallace, or playing a rock-solid hold at shooter. But there was a key matchup seen by Finnan-White that is a weak point for Swifts. “Giants circle defenders have forced Sam Wallace to shoot at 14% less accuracy.” Achieving dominance early is a key to the struggle at this end, and Wallace is a barometer for the whole game.
Housby started like a firecracker at goal attack for the Swifts two weeks ago, to develop their handy lead as she outpaced April Brandley on front cuts and shot 7/8 with no turnovers, with the GIANTS’ goal defence amassing six penalties in fifteen minutes. From then on it was Brandley who dominated, with three gains in the next 45 minutes, and Housby being benched for eight minutes and scoring only 4/5. The English Roses’ star needs to adjust faster, using her speed while keeping her cool.
For most of the season, Giants have started with Brandley and Sam Poolman, and have the option of McDonnell off the bench. Brandley’s start to the season was sheer brilliance, but her impact waned. She needs to ignore the fatigue and dislocation of Covid times to channel her best once more for 60 minutes – this alone may win the title. It also seems a smart tactic to use both of the goal keepers, as McDonell is faster and more keen to take a flying circle-edge intercept. At this point, Manu’a seems destined to be on the bench but ready for impact or injury replacement.
The midcourt battle
Despite the experience at domestic and international level of the Swifts, it’s the Giants that should win this fight. Their game plan is formulated to suit the athletes in the squad. Hay and Jamie-Lee Price are slower than their opponents, but their clearing of space, dodge, and timing are hard to beat. In the last encounter, Swifts threw everything possible at the receipt of a pass, while GIANTS’ placement and understanding of their teammate’s capabilities was fantastic. The minor premiers from this year have improved out of sight in this main way – their pass selection is similar, but their execution is faster, safer, and very accurate, and their turnovers have shrunk accordingly.
Traditionally a wing defence in only her second year with Giants, Hay has spent this season at wing attack, and it’s her first finals series. She is elusive in a simple and unique way. Price on the other hand uses her powerful body to keep pace and shield a space, rolling off at the last minute to take an easy ball through the middle. Their opponents need to target two areas – isolating Hay on the second phase, and taking more of a side position on Price, between her and the ball. Easier said than done!
Swifts veterans Hadley and Maddy Proud are exceptionally fast and decisive. In the major semi-final they started like rockets, finding space at will and leaving Price and Amy Parmenter in their dust. Hadley in particular has benefited from being thrown into wing defence this year, as it makes her variety of drives and speed off the mark a bit less predictable when resuming her spot at wing attack. It is a distinct possibility that she swings into the backline with Haythornthwaite having impact later in the match. Yet, this is the key weakness of Swifts in 2021 – no true wing defender and putting square pegs in a round hole.
GIANTS shooters v Swifts defenders
If anyone ever revolutionised their game and revitalised themselves, it is Jo Harten in 2021. Once Kiera Austin went down with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in the first round, all the assumed plans of GIANTS were thrown out and their options became very slim. Also with no true wing attack, they now had a shaky front four and very little room for substitutions for the entire season. Thankfully, with great coaching, persistence, and leadership from Harten, they have made a huge run to the finals, at times looking unstoppable. Sophie Dwyer has a beautifully tranquil demeanour, and shoots around 88% from 1-point range. She compliments Harten well by being a bit more measured and slinking into small spaces and along the baseline, then nailing the long shots. The feeders have an excellent understanding of the movement patterns of the shooters and are ever-ready to reset.
Finnan-White outlined the requirements for Swifts to overcome the form shooters. “Klau can go missing in games, however she has demonstrated that she is also a match winner and can take intercepts when they are desperately needed which is inspiring for the team. I would like to see Klau come off Harten’s body more as Jo likes to know where her defender is so she can hold and drop into the open space. By coming off the body, Harten will be looking for Klau to set up the hold and this could be enough to put her off her game.
“Maddy Turner will play a key role in whether Dwyer is able to connect with Harten. She will need to really step up in this match to dictate Dwyer’s movements to take her out of her comfort zone and force her to earn every ball. Swifts mid court will need to apply the defensive pressure before it gets to Harten and Dwyer.”
Who has the upper hand?
It’s a brave call to pick a winner in this final. Pundits can ascribe meaning to all sorts of factors – the Swifts with two wins over GIANTS, more international players, an extra week off, more options off the bench for all areas of the court – the GIANTS peaking at the right time, showing mettle and contained passion, a truly dominant midcourt, and junior players who don’t ever seemed to succumb to pressure.
And so it’s down to two factors which are unpredictable. The coaching game, where Briony Akle and Julie Fitzgerald use their team and their instincts to pull key players off for a few minutes of rest and instruction, or a semi-planned change. Too many changes are unsettling, so as the game evolves it should be the team with few and smart swaps that has an edge.
The other is headspace. No matter what personal or physical issues a player is bearing, they need to either be erased or harnessed for the four hours before and during the final.
Finnan-White sees this as a critical advantage: “The experience of a grand final can be quite overwhelming when it’s your first time and nerves can derail a player early in the game, particularly in those pressure moments when you need to remain calm and make good decisions.”
And in the end, the crucial play could come from almost any player on either team to seal a final intercept and goal. When it comes down to the final play, there are certain proven figures that Finnan-White trusts to deliver. “Wallace, Dwyer or Harten to take a shot or super shot on the buzzer. Parmenter, Hay or Klau to win the ball with 20 seconds to go.”
Whichever way the spoils fall, it will be a triumph for all teams to have made it through two difficult years and inspired their fans. Bring it on!!