The Sunshine Coast Lightning are only one win away from giving their beloved coach Noeline Taurua a fairy-tale ending to her final season with the team. Not only was the Lightning eager to give Taurua a dream finish, but they also wanted to smash the Suncorp Super Netball voodoo curse which has not seen one minor premiership-winning team reach the grand final in the history of the SSN.
After an incredibly close game in their Round 11 encounter, the NSW Swifts braved the USC Stadium with English champion Helen Housby returning to the ranks following a serious thigh injury which saw her sidelined for their last encounter with the Lightning. Returning to the Sunshine Coast in their first finals appearance, the injury-plagued Swifts were determined to ruin Taurua’s storybook ending.
Unfortunately, it was ominous start for the Swifts in the opening minutes of the major semi-final.
Beginning the game with the centre pass, the Swifts passed around trying to open up space into their goal circle, when the ball was abruptly intercepted by Lightning centre Laura Langman in front of Swifts goal defence, Maddy Turner. Turning the ball quickly back down court to their goal circle, goal attack Steph Wood capitalised under the post to get the scoring underway.
The second perilous warning for the Swifts was an uncharacteristic miss on first attempt by their usually unflappable goal shooter, Sam Wallace. Wallace did manage to recover; successfully rebounding and finally scoring under the post.
Both teams eased gently into the game, taking time to find their rhythm. The Lightning patiently threw the ball around the circle, with a couple of high, across-goal passes until Wood unlocked some space to position herself to shoot.
Lightning goal defence Phumza Maweni impressed early with a deflection from Wallace, which turned the ball back down court to the Lightning goal, but Cara Koenen overbalancing out of court, threw the ball back into play and into the safe hands of Swifts centre Paige Hadley who was positioned along the circle edge. Swifts moved the ball quickly to their goal and Wallace scored under the post.
Swifts held their nerve, passing around trying to find room for themselves, throwing as far back as the Lightning goal third line, before a deflection by Lightning goal defence Karla Pretorius, caused a Lightning turnover.
The Lightning’s moving circle proved problematic early for Swifts goal keeper Sarah Klau and Turner. Wood and Koenen have developed a deep understanding of the impeccable timing of each other’s moves, with their speedy flick passes finding each other along the base line and under the post.
Although Klau worked hard to stay with her, moving towards the ball Koenen would simply stop, change direction and call for a high pass. Although Klau strained hard to intercept the ball, Koenen’s equally long stretch put Klau out of reach. Both Koenen and Housby had a scorching first quarter, scoring 100% apiece.
In the Swifts goal circle, both Maweni and Pretorius allowed Wallace and Housby, at times, to roam out of the goal circle, but it was a different story when they tried to return. Tight zone defence by both defenders caused early headaches for the Swift shooters as they tried to make space to position themselves close to the ring. It became futile for Housby who resigned herself to score from mid-range.
Swifts wing attack Natalie Haythornthwaite had a blistering first quarter. Managing to open up space for herself, her feeds (eight for the quarter) into her goal circle were timed perfectly.
An intercept by Maweni bought the ball back down court to the Lightning circle and offloaded to Steph Wood who scored closing the gap for her side who now trailed the Swifts 13-14 at the first break.
Lightning began the second quarter with the centre pass but Wood missed her first shot of the term, with Klau ready to clean up after her. A quick transition saw Wallace, home alone, open her second quarter account.
Moving well in and around their goal circle and picking up pace, the Swifts shooters upped the ante and started to cause headaches for the Lightning defence. With four speedy goals from Wallace in the opening minutes, the Swifts very quickly stretched their lead out by five. With the Lightning under increasing pressure, they needed to pull something out of the bag and score if they were to remain in touch.
The Swifts at times worked magic from their centre passes. With crisp and clean connections, Haythornthwaite and Hadley worked hard to feed the ball down to their shooters, not afraid to pass around, across court and behind them to reset and create space for themselves.
Working hard to force turnovers, the Lightning steadied themselves, shifting momentum and working the ball around the Swifts tight defence. Working her own brand of magic, Wood rolled mid-drive, changing direction towards the ball, leaving Turner in her wake. Wood worked methodically for her 15 goal assists and 14 feeds for the game.
A scorching intercept by Lightning wing defence Maddie McAuliffe, and a well-read deflection by Maweni away from goal attack Housby as she shot for goal led to a subtle increase in the Lightning tempo. As they began to gently put their foot on the accelerator, they forged ahead of a stunned Swifts by two. Whether it was strategic or genuine, Housby left the court on an injury time-out, bringing on Sophie Garbin into goal attack.
Following a contact by Langman (one of only four contacts she conceded for the game) in the Lightning pocket, beautiful work by the Swifts saw large, cross court passes towards their goal end by wing defence Katrina Rore, Hadley and Haythornthwaite, who found Wallace waiting near the edge of the circle. Following a contact on Wallace by Maweni, Wallace, preferring to be closer to the post, gave the shot to Garbin who scored.
Quick, pinpoint feeds in and out of the Lightning circle by Langman to Wood, who found a moving Koenen along the baseline to score, showed the strong understanding amongst the Lightning attack. With the addition of Scherian in the pocket, rocketing well-timed passes to a waiting and in-form Koenen saw the Lightning lead into half-time 27-25.
A contact by Klau against Koenen under the post gave Lightning an easy first point at the start of the second half. This was followed by a moment of confusion when the ball appeared to come off Maweni and out of play in the Swifts goal third. Hadley believing it was the Swifts throw-in, motioned towards the ball before the umpire awarded the throw-in to the Lightning and Maweni quickly got on with the job, throwing in, with Koenen eventually capitalising on the episode. This was the spark of an epic momentum-shifting quarter for Lightning.
In what seemed like a matter of seconds, the Lightning had stretched their lead out to seven before the visitors, non-surprisingly, called a timeout. Swifts coach, Briony Akle, utilised the break to ring-in major changes: Turner was brought off, Rore was moved into goal defence, Sophie Halpin into wing defence and Tayla Fraser into centre. With skin-tight Lightning defence, an early held ball by Fraser in the Swifts goal third was a worrying start after the time-out.
There was a sense of desperation by the Swifts as the score began to bleed out. In a physical display, every player except Garbin was penalised for contacts during the third quarter. Rore managed four, Klau and Halpin both had three as the Swifts struggled against the Lightning juggernaut. Koenen was challenged by both Klau and Fraser when she ventured out of the circle, with both Swift players adopting a zone to try and thwart her entry back into the circle.
Two intercepts by Pretorius and one from Langman in the third quarter sent the local crowd wild. The noise was so deafening that the players to struggled to hear the umpires’ whistle.
Langman was instrumental in the Lightning’s turn of fortunes and led by example, racking up seven-goal assists and 13 feeds for the quarter and an incredible 20 goal assists and a massive 46 feeds for the game.
Wallace appeared to struggle in the circle. Her movement slowed by a heavily strapped knee, saw her lose a pass to a Pretorius intercept. A fumbled ball under the goal by Wallace shortly after was the signal for Swifts coach Briony Akle to send Garbin in to replace Wallace. While the Lightning defenders were pre-occupied by Housby roaming out and around the circle, Garbin was left home alone under the post to score. Garbin and Housby have a lovely understanding of each other’s play and worked effortlessly together. However, it wasn’t enough to slow the Lightning who maintained energy and enthusiasm to power ahead, leading 45-34 at three-quarter time.
Heading into the last quarter, and after some determined and unrelenting defence in the Lightning’s goal circle, the Swifts won the ball back after a Klau intercept over Koenen. Steadily, the Swifts worked the ball back down to their circle for Garbin to score under the post. Klau had a scorching last quarter, with her never-say-die attitude driving her to grab two punishing intercepts in the last minutes. But the Lightning continued their domination, with smothering defence leading to another held ball by Fraser, who had nowhere to go in the Swifts goal third.
With the finish line safely in their sights, Koenen was rested after a superb game, top-scoring with 3-/32 at 93.8% for the match. Peace Proscovia was subbed on but had to work hard and smart against Klau, who was all over her. Playing a very different style of game to Koenen, Proscovia holds tight, constantly changing position, making it difficult to be defended and then calling for a high ball. Klau delights at the challenge of a high ball and the Lightning attack appeared wary to throw to Proscovia as Klau smothered her. It was only when she moved more freely around and out of the circle, creating space for herself that she was rewarded by her team for her effort. Proscovia shot a hard-earned 85.7% for the quarter.
An over-zealous Halpin was handed a caution by the umpire for her rough play. Coming into the game part-way through the third quarter, Halpin surrendered eight contacts for her short game, five in the last quarter alone. Rore also had a physical game with 16 contacts for the match, compared to Pretorius and Maweni who each had nine.
Despite a multitude of positional changes, the Swifts could not rein in the minor premiers, with both teams scoring 13 goals for the quarter. The crowd erupted, and the hearts of Swift fans everywhere shattered at the final siren – the Lightning the victors in a hard-earned 58-48 win.
Outgoing Lightning coach Noeline Taurua and assistant coach Kylee Burne shared an emotional moment on the side-line as the realisation of a third consecutive grand final began to sink in. Or maybe it was the relief of finally smashing that minor premiers voodoo curse.
Sunshine Coast Lightning 58 def NSW Swifts 48
(13-14,14-11, 18-10, 13-13)
Player of the Match: Laura Langman (Sunshine Coast Lightning)
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Cara Koenen 30/32 – 93.8%
Steph Wood 22/29 – 75.9%
Peace Proscovia 6/7 – 85.7%
58/68 – 85.3%
Sam Wallace 16/19 – 84.2%
Helen Housby 16/18 – 89%
Sophie Garbin 16/18 – 89%
48/55 – 87.3%
Karla Pretorius (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 3
Sarah Klau (NSW Swifts) – 3
Laura Langman (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 20
Natalie Haythornthwaite (NSW Swifts) – 19
Laura Langman (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 46
Natalie Haythornthwaite (NSW Swifts) – 33
Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Cara Koenen
GA Stephanie Wood
WA Laura Scherian
C Laura Langman
WD Maddy McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Phumza Maweni
Bench: Jacqui Russell, Peace Proscovia, Annika Lee-Jones
Q4 – GS Peace Proscovia
GS Sam Wallace
GA Helen Housby
WA Natalie Haythornthwaite
C Paige Hadley
WD Katrina Rore
GD Maddy Turner
GK Sarah Klau
Bench: Sophie Garbin, Tayla Fraser, Sophie Halpin
GA Sophie Garbin
GA Helen Housby
GD Katrina Rore
WD Sophie Halpin
C Tayla Fraser
C Paige Hadley
GS Sophie Garbin
What they said
Laura Langman (MVP)
What happened in the second quarter? It looked like the Swifts were doing really well, but it was like the Lightning pressed a button and just pulled away?
I think what a real strength of our side is that we have really good awareness in our two units. The Swifts did a really great job of keeping us out wide, and we potentially were missing a path trying to get into our shooters. It was nice that after a time-out we could remedy that. But against any team going forward, and the Swifts if we meet them again, it’s a dangerous spot to be in.
The Swifts turned up the physicality in the third quarter, but you seemed to be able to stem it. Did your game experience come into it, do you think?
There’s one thing we’ve learnt for sure, a 10 or 12 goal buffer is not enough. I think what was really cool looking out of the third quarter was everyone was saying, “it’s not enough, it’s not enough.” So, the awareness was there right from the start. When you get into those situations, sometimes you can turn on the defensive, and I thought Steph (Wood) nailed it on the head. She said, pretty much to everyone, that we needed to attack and we need to keep attacking. I think in patches we did that really well, but there was probably about a five-minute patch there where we did get caught wide again and were missing that link before we distributed it into our shooters. So, we’ll have a closer look at that this week.
Do you expect to be playing the Swifts again in two weeks? What are your thoughts?
Look, I don’t even know… Magpies are coming… I’m a fan of the Vixens… the Swifts are so tidy – they’re great with ball in hand. The spot’s really up for grabs.
How are the feelings and emotions after this game?
Well, today it was another first for the club – a special moment to host the major semi-final at home in our new stadium. There’s many a party who have contributed to extending the stadium so we could be in this position, so it’s a rare reward for them – all the hard work and moolah behind it, to get us to this point. Yes, it was a special day for us. We wanted to enjoy the fact that we’d finished on top, and I think Noels (Taurua) hits the nail on the head every time – when you get to play-offs, the tendency is to tighten up and you tend to forget how special the moment is and it was heartfelt today to see when people went for things or a nice play came off, that we celebrated in the moment. Yes, there was a lot of enjoyment today.
What happens for the Lightning over the next two weeks? Is it business as usual?
Absolutely! With probably an added emphasis on recovery. You get the week off for a reason, and we need to make the most of it. But, I’m pretty sure training will be just as tenacious as it was this week, but that’s how it should be when you’re heading into a grand-final.
This was the last time you’ll coach a game in this stadium, how are you feeling?
It’s very special obviously, and myself and Kylee (assistant coach Kylee Burne) had a few words, maybe 2 minutes to go and it was very special. We’ve got one more game to go, but yeah, it’s absolutely fantastic.
So, the voodoo curse is over?
Yes, I know! The voodoo’s over, which is awesome, as we’ve spoken about that forever and ever. There were a lot of milestone for our club and also our team, and it was never going to be easy, I suppose, but our ability to execute and deliver when the pressure was on and when we needed to -I’m really happy about that. So, the voodoo curse is over and in a couple of weeks we’re heading to the grand final and we’re going to live it up.
What do you say about that second quarter, where the Swifts were up by five and they were playing well, but the Lightning seemed to find another level after that time-out?
We practiced that a lot. There’s a lot of things we do practice and knowing what we need to do coming after a time-out and, I suppose, be very mechanical in our thinking. It wasn’t actually too bad probably. As Laura said, we got ourselves out a bit too wide in the attacking end and quite far away from each other, so we just needed to centralise ourselves. We were getting enough hand to ball in our defensive end, we just needed to stay creating and I think above all, we needed to contest the line and when we do that in attack and defence, we’re quite unstoppable.
What does it mean to you as a club–that when you first started, you didn’t have netballs, bibs or paperclips–to now be playing in your third straight grand final?
It’s actually a sublime feeling and it’s hard to express in actual words what we’re feeling, apart from being really proud of our club and of our team. But we’ve also echoed on about the people we represent, and it hasn’t been an easy path, I suppose, for us. A lot of people behind the scenes have done a lot of grind, but as we mentioned not a lot of teams get into a grand-final, let alone back to back, and us going three times. We’re very grateful for our position, and the opportunity that has been presented and knowing that we need to keep working over the next couple of weeks if we want to lift the cup.
The grand final must be played at Boondall (Entertainment Centre), but this club has a fantastic record at that venue, doesn’t it?
I love playing at Boondall! We’ve had some massive games, not only with other opposition in grand finals, but also against the Firebirds and it seems, for both teams, it is a central place or venue. It has a great feel and we know those changing rooms back to front, so we absolutely love playing there. It’s an added bonus and a positive slant that we can get more people into that venue, and that’s always a bonus.
Do you think you’ll be playing the Swifts again?
Look I don’t know, if I’m going to be honest. Tomorrow against Magpies and Vixens, it’s going to be a really interesting game for a lot of different reasons. There’s so much uncertainty and I think any team, without taking any of the clichés, but any of those three teams we could possibly play. It’s really great to be in this position where we can sit back and watch them fight each other over the next couple of weeks and get ourselves as prepared as possible.
Noeline, how do you rate Laura Langman’s performance today?
I thought she was really good! Right from the start when she got that turnover it really looked like, from my perspective, that she was out for a game. I thought she was on fire, both on attack and defence, she wasn’t holding back. Sometimes in the business end (of the season) or in finals, you get those players that are a bit tentative, she started the game really well and led really well.
Is it rare for a centre to be so influential in each third?
That’s the Langman style! She loves the stuff and she shines when we’re either down or if we’re heading into grand finals or semi-finals, that’s where she shines and she loves being in those positions – she’s a fighter. It’s synonymous with her, I think no matter what position she plays, so in two weeks’ time, she’ll be out there again.