A season disrupted by the world championships came down to the last game of the last round. If the Magpies could win their local derby against the Vixens by seven goals, and win three quarters to claim the bonus points, they would usurp fourth spot on the ladder from the Giants, who had a one point advantage.
Karma was not being propitious: Magpies WA Kelsey Browne was felled by an ACL in Round 13, while coach Rob Wright had been unable to return to Melbourne from bereavement leave. But the Vixens gave the Magpies a decent sniff at their unlikely finals scenario, coming off two defeats in a row by ladder leaders Lightning and Swifts.
A focused and methodical first quarter from the Magpies had them knocking off bonus point number one in the final minute. Tight defence in the goal circle from Geva Mentor and April Brandley was brilliantly supported by Kim Ravaillion. She played an immaculate game at WD covering every move of Liz Watson with discipline, forcing the Vixens WA wide and restricting space. Ravaillion’s clean pressure caused Watson to give up three uncharacteristic turnovers: two held balls and one dropped pass over the sideline. These defensive gains was balanced by two turnovers in the Magpies goal circle from which the Vixens were able to score: a missed shot by Nelson rebounded by Weston, and a dropped ball from Nelson that was swiftly taken down the other end to score.
The final centre pass of the first quarter was especially thrilling: the Magpies were leading 13-12 and had only to score from their centre pass. Possession was turned over in this passage of play four times in ninety seconds. The Magpies won the ball back twice by forcing held ball decisions against Liz Watson and Jo Weston. Finally, C Ash Brazill was able to feed Medhurst in scoring range with three seconds left, and the Magpies secured the first bonus point with a 14-12 lead.
The Magpies looked well balanced all over the court. A particularly effective aspect of their defence was the way that Ravaillion and Brazill dropped away from the Vixens feeders to shadow the leads of the shooters from the circle, constricting space around the circle edge. The Magpies scored from four Vixens centre passes in a row in the second quarter, causing the Vixens to call a timeout with the score at 21-14.
The Vixens returned to the court with a new-look goal third defence. A square moving zone planted firmly in the Magpies goal third forced the Magpies wide, leading to two quick errors. GA Natalie Medhurst scored eight from eight attempts in the second quarter, but her play was not immaculate. She forced two ill-advised passes to GS Shimona Nelson, which Nelson was unable to take cleanly, and the Vixens scored from the turnovers to bring the quarter score back to 9-7. On the Magpies 11th centre pass, the Vixens set up a brilliant defensive trap, where Nelson popped forward into space only to find Weston in her face and hands first on the ball.
The bonus point was in jeopardy until three passes later, when Brazill heroically won a possession call against Watson, again forcing the Vixens WA wide to the sideline and anticipating the pass with brilliant closing speed. Brazill’s game awareness was the galvanising factor in the Magpies winning the quarter: she controlled the tempo at C, and ensured her teammates knew the score and responded appropriately. The Magpies made no more mistakes, hanging on to one centre-pass break and taking the quarter 14-13, and leading the match 28-25.
The Magpies had been ahead by eight goals in the second quarter, but the Vixens did not give up another turnover on their centre pass after the tactical timeout at five minutes. The Magpies again were struggling for consistency: brilliant patches of display were rapidly undone when Medhurst tried to look over the defensive confusion to Nelson, instead of playing the ball patiently. The Vixens have several get-out-of-jail-free cards to play when the pressure is on: Thwaites consistently broke free of Mentor in the centre corridor picking up some relieving penalties on the way, and Philip’s reliable long shot kept the Magpies defenders guessing fruitlessly.
The first nine minutes of the third quarter was an absorbing contest. The Magpies turned the ball over twice in their goal third through bad passes, but in a sign of greater determination they won the ball back to prevent the Vixens from converting. The Vixens unaccountably called a timeout at nine minutes, down 8-6 on the quarter score, and benched Emily Mannix who at that stage had won four defensive gains. Coach Simone McKinnis later said that she was hoping Kadie Ann Dehaney could give the Magpies shooters something else to think about, but the trouble was all down the Vixens’ attacking end, where the feeders continued to struggle to find space and feed in a timely manner despite a position swap between Watson and Kate Moloney.
The Vixens are usually role models at returning to the court following a timeout, but not this time – they gave up their next three centre passes in a row, with Brazill causing disruption all over the court. In contrast, the Magpies addressed the consistency of their possession game and gave away not one converted centre pass for the whole 15 minutes, following two in the first quarter and three in the second.
The final quarter was a wonderful battle between the two defensive ends. The beneficiary of the work being done by Brazill and Ravaillion, Mentor begin to dominate GS Caitlin Thwaites with a series of disruptive possessions and intercepts. Neither team could bring the ball easily from the centre pass, with the Magpies converting four turnovers, and the Vixens converting five, bolstered by the entry of Mwai Kumwenda and the return of Mannix to GK.
Suddenly, the quarter score was 8-8, the Magpies were eleven goals ahead, and all their good work of the previous 50 minutes was at risk of being undone if the Vixens could convert two more defensive gains. A timeout to take stock failed to reassure the black and white army – the Magpies returned to the court and gave up their next possession, courtesy of an unrealistic cross-court pass from Ravaillion to Brazill.
One of the brilliant aspects of watching Brazill’s coming of age in C over the past three weeks has been her dynamic willingness to lead and effect turnovers. From that point on, she asserted calm, carried the ball steadily to the circle edge, and fed intuitively to each of her shooters. It is an absolute joy to watch her buying time through aerial takes and then varying the ball speed to whip past experienced defenders, and she was the only choice for player of the match. The Magpies maintained their margin of 11 goals to win the game 58-47, leaving the hapless Giants 0.6% adrift on the ladder on goal difference.
There were good news stories all over the court for the Magpies. Kimiora Poi blended nicely into the Magpies attacking lineup, and while she did not dominate goal assists for the team she kept the dangerous Renae Ingles busy and out of the way. This was particularly valuable in the final quarter, when the Vixens adjusted their defence to focus on arms over the ball pressure in the goal third – and Renae Ingles at a legal three feet is a formidable obstacle. Poi kept her head, re-setting calmly to the transverse line and minimising her turnovers to only two for the game.
Medhurst at GA was able to divert defensive pressure from Nelson with short bursts of brilliance, particularly in the second quarter when she scored eight from eight. She does have a tendency to make clusters of errors, however. Two turnovers in a row in the second quarter were put down to bad hands by Shimona Nelson, but in truth they were forced passes from Medhurst which would have benefited from a more patient approach. Those two turnovers came when the quarter score was 9-4 in favour of the Magpies, and squandered an opportunity to bury the Vixens, who then brought the contest back to 9-8. Her 16 goals from 17 attempts complemented Nelson’s 42 from 47, although it is still less than the 20-goal target that Rob Wright has set for her each game.
Assistant coach Nicole Richardson was ecstatic at the result. “If they were going to bring it, today was the day to bring it, wasn’t it?” she said. “We spoke a lot before the game about their heart and their head. I thought they brought that today.
“I also spoke about the choice they had before them. They had been given an opportunity – the door was ajar, and they just needed to put a foot through it. They were given a choice in what they wanted to do, and the performance they wanted to put out there. And you can’t fault them.
“As a club we’re so proud of what the girls put together. I’m sure Rob back in Sydney will be so proud and pumped at their performance. And it’s not just about today. Their past month has been very good. We knew they could play that brand of netball, it’s just taken a little bit to get it out of them.
“Hopefully we’ve got some momentum going into finals. We’re actually there not to make up numbers, we’re there to do some damage. I’m looking forward to the week ahead and seeing what we can do in the finals series.”
“It is a massive step for the club to be playing finals, when you put it into the perspective of the year. With Rob losing his mum, and the two Brownes going down, they are a big part of our club. We spoke about that before the game. We spoke about the people who weren’t here today, and the people who weren’t on the court. So we spoke about doing it for them, and doing it for themselves.”
Richardson was not being sucked in to thinking that coaching is easy, after three victories in a row. “I think I’d prefer to play, at least playing you’ve got a little bit more control!” she said. “But when they put in a performance like that, when the execute, it’s fun. When they don’t bring their game, that’s when it’s a bit frustrating at times. We knew what we needed to do coming into the game today, and we can’t be prouder of them.
“The top three teams should definitely be worried. We’ve found some form at the right end of the season, and I reckon we’ve got a lot of momentum. We’re building confidence with the group that are out there now. We’re not out there to make up numbers, we’re there to give it a real shakeup.”
On Ash Brazill’s move to C in the past few weeks, Richardson said that she was able to offer a different type of game. “We felt that we were struggling to punch through down into the circle edge. When you’ve got such a post-up goaler like Shimona, you really need to get to the circle edge to create those feeds. Brazzie’s raw athletic ability enables her to get through and create those easier feeds for us.”
Vixens coach Simone McKinnis was not at all happy with the Vixens’ performance. “The Magpies were all over us right from the word go. It’s disappointing, but we have to look at next week.”
McKinnis was struggling to put a finger on what was lacking in the Vixens’ game. “It will be interesting to have a chat to the girls after the game to see what they felt. We seemed a bit hesitant across the court, particularly down in attack. Maybe it’s that confidence and a bit of belief that is missing at the moment, so we’ve got to talk that through.”
“Defensively, the Magpies did a super good job in their changeups in defence and their box. We weren’t really good at recognising what was happening and playing accordingly. We lacked the smarts to work the ball as we needed to. The Magpies were good across the court, and that’s the bottom line.”
McKinnis did not set any store in the fact that the Vixens were secure in third spot on the ladder while the Magpies had so much to play for. “We wanted to win this game in preparation for next week. We were certainly playing against a team that was playing for their season, but if you’re heading into finals you should be able to withstand that sort of drive from an opposing team and I don’t think we handled that very well.”
Next week, Collingwood plays the Vixens in the second semi-final playoff at the State Netball and Hockey Centre, on Sunday 1 September, instead of at Melbourne Arena. “It’s a shame not to be playing here to be honest, but it’s great that we’re in the finals.”
Collingwood Magpies 58 def Melbourne Vixens 47
(14-12, 14-13, 17-9, 13-13)
Player of the match: Ash Brazill, Magpies
GS Shimona Nelson
GA Natalie Medhurst
WA Kimiora Poi
C Ash Brazill
WD Kim Ravaillion
GD April Brandley
GK Geva Mentor
GS Caitlin Thwaites
GA Tegan Philip
WA Liz Watson
C Kate Moloney
WD Renae Ingles
GD Jo Weston
GK Emily Mannix
Q2: WA Moloney, C Watson
Q3: GS Philip, GA Thwaites, GK Kadie-Ann Dehaney
Q4: GS Thwaites, GA Philip, GK Mannix, GS Mwai Kumwenda, WA Watson, C Moloney
Liz Watson (Vixens) 7, Shimona Nelson (Magpies) 6
Emily Mannix (Vixens) 4, Ash Brazill (Magpies) 3, Geva Mentor (Magpies) 3, April Brandley (Magpies) 2