This is the third part of our look back at the past decade in netball. Today we look at 2017 and 2018.
2017 was the start of a new era. After nine seasons, the trans-Tasman competition, the ANZ Championship was no more. The two partners, Netball Australia and Netball New Zealand went their separate ways and reverted to their own national leagues.
In New Zealand, not an awful lot changed, with ANZ staying on as the sponsor and Sky Sport continuing on as the broadcaster. A new team was formed in Auckland, the Northern Stars, to create a six team competition, the ANZ Premiership.
But in Australia, there was a big change. The new competition, Suncorp Super Netball, was supported by a rich new television deal with the Nine Network and Telstra, and featured three new teams; Giants Netball, Collingwood Magpies and Sunshine Coast Lightning.
With all three new teams backed by strong football clubs, they were able to lure many of the top players away from the existing five teams from the old competition. And in another important change, there was now no restriction on the number of imports a team could have. As a result, numerous international players signed on to be a part of the new league.
Magpies didn’t go looking for imports, however. Instead, they recruited several top-line Australian players. Caitlin Thwaites, Madi Robinson, Kim Ravaillion, Ash Brazill, April Brandley and Sharni Layton all signed on. As a result, they were tipped by many to be the winners of the first Super Netball title. Indeed, most experts believed the competition would turn out to be a battle between the three new clubs, with the other five teams left in their wake.
As it turned out, it was actually the Melbourne Vixens, having retained most of their talent from the ANZ Championship, who became the first Super Netball minor-premiers after they went through the regular season losing just two matches. The other spots in the finals fell to the three new clubs.
Sadly for the Vixens, they lost two straight finals matches at home and missed the grand final. Meanwhile, the Magpies struggled with the burden of expectation and never reached any great heights, finishing fourth. So, the first Super Netball grand final was set with two of the new teams competing. The Sunshine Coast Lightning hosted the Giants in Brisbane in front of 9,000 fans. And Lightning dominated, winning 65-48.
Coached by kiwi Noeline Taurua, the Lightning team was a major beneficiary of Super Netball’s new rule regarding unrestricted imports. An international back three of Geva Mentor, Karla Mostert and Laura Langman was sublime, with Mostert voted player of the match. Meanwhile, Caitlin Bassett (49/51) and Steph Wood (16/20) starred in the shooting circle.
Despite the presence of English internationals, Jo Harten and Serena Guthrie, Giants were no match for Lightning in the grand final. Giants had suffered a major setback earlier in the season, losing their captain Kim Green to a ruptured ACL, so it was a great effort from them just to reach the big one.
In New Zealand, Southern Steel was heavily favoured to take out the first ANZ Premiership. While other kiwi teams had lost their star imports to Super Netball, the Steel had managed to retain Jhaniele Fowler in their lineup, making them a dominant force. They went through the season unbeaten. There certainly wasn’t a lack of drama though.
Just over two weeks out from the grand final, six Steel players were in a van on their way to do a promotional visit, when they crashed. The van slid on its side for 30 metres. Four of the players were hurt, with a battered captain Wendy Frew being the worst affected. She required 70 stitches. Te Paea Selby-Rickit also had injured ribs.
Just two days after the crash, Steel had a game against bottom placed Tactix. The four injured players were ruled out. Somehow, Steel managed to scrape together a team. And somehow, they managed to win after trailing for much of the game.
The grand final was just 16 days after the crash, and incredibly Frew was there, along with all the other players involved in the crash. It had been an enormous task just to get a patched up Frew back in time for the grand final, and there was no way Steel was going to be beaten after all they had gone through. They defeated Central Pulse 69-53, with Fowler shooting 56 goals. Steel then went on to win the inaugural Super Club tournament the following week, capping off an undefeated season of 21 matches.
In the UK, 2017 was also the start of a new era, with three brand new teams entering the Superleague. As in Australia, powerful football clubs were starting to have an influence. In this case it was Rugby club Wasps who were granted a licence to field a team. Severn Stars and Scottish Sirens were also included. In a decision that disappointed many however, the Yorkshire Jets were dumped, left out of the expanded ten-team competition altogether.
Wasps hit the ground running, having gained the services of two time winning coach Tamsin Greenway from Surrey Storm. Greenway brought several Storm players with her to the new franchise, and just as the Sunshine Coast did, Wasps went on to take out the title in their very first year. They defeated Loughborough Lightning 55-51 in a tight grand final, with Rachel Dunn scoring 43/47. Lightning had gone into the game as favourites, having lost only one game during the regular season, but Wasps gained the upper hand in the final quarter.
In international netball in 2017, the Silver Ferns won the Quad Series for the first time in September when they beat Australia by 10 goals in Invercargill. This game was noteworthy for the performance of shooters Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Bailey Mes, who teamed up beautifully in the absence of Maria Tutaia who was on bereavement leave. Meanwhile, at the other end of the court, tall youngster Kelly Jury managed to put Caitlin Bassett off her game.
When the two countries met again for the Constellation Cup just a month later however, the Diamonds won all four tests by ever increasing margins, 3, 8, 12, and 16 goals. This was the beginning of a dramatic form slump in New Zealand netball that would carry on into 2018.
Increased competition via the Quad Series was definitely improving the overall standard of both England and South Africa. The Roses lost to Australia by just one goal in a frantic encounter in London in February and then they managed to beat New Zealand in September. Meanwhile, the Proteas took the Roses to extra time in Durban, and then beat them in Invercargill.
On the selection front, after having being rested for the January Quad Series tour, goal attack Nat Medhurst’s name was missing altogether from the Diamonds’ 2017/18 squad when it was announced in June. This was an unpopular decision with many Australian netball fans, as it was felt that Medhurst was being unfairly punished for the West Coast Fever’s poor season. It was a particularly bad time to be on the outer with selectors with the Commonwealth Games coming up early in 2018.
While Medhurst was missing from the Diamonds, Laura Langman was missing from the Silver Ferns. Langman hadn’t played a test since late in 2016 as Netball New Zealand stringently stuck to its policy of not selecting a player who wasn’t playing in the New Zealand competition. Late in 2017, having earlier agreed to play with the Lightning again, Langman was granted a release, and announced she was going to be taking time away from netball in 2018.
2017 Honour Roll
Constellation Cup: Australia
Jan/Feb Quad Series: Australia
Aug/Sep Quad Series: New Zealand
Suncorp Super Netball: Sunshine Coast Lightning
ANZ Premiership: Southern Steel
Super-Club: Southern Steel
UK Superleague: Wasps Netball
Liz Ellis Diamond: Gabi Simpson
NS World’s Best Netballer: Geva Mentor
It’s doubtful that any netball team has ever played any better than Australia did in its first six matches at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. They won all of their matches leading into the final by over 20 goals, and displayed form that made them the overwhelming favourites for gold.
But somebody forgot to tell the English team that. England had gone through to the final undefeated as well, albeit not as impressively as the Australians. But perhaps more importantly, they had played tougher and more competitive matches in the lead up. That included a come from behind one-goal victory against Jamaica in a pulsating semi final.
That match was highlighted by the battle between Geva Mentor and Jhaniele Fowler. For three and a half quarters, Jamaica’s giant shooter Fowler was on top. And so was her team. But Mentor refused to give up, and kept on pressuring Fowler, even when all looked lost.
Slowly but surely, all that pressure from Mentor bore fruit, and she induced some errors in the last quarter. Having been in control, the Sunshine Girls were suddenly flustered in attack. Finally, it was left to Jo Harten who nailed the winning goal for England with one second left, prompting huge celebrations. Final score: England 56 Jamaica 55.
Leading up to the final, Australia had dominated all of its opponents to such a degree, the proud boast was that they didn’t know what their strongest seven was. Sadly for them, those words would prove prophetic in the battle for the gold medal on Sunday April 15.
It was 25-25 at half time, and under pressure from a composed and motivated England team that just wouldn’t go away, coach Lisa Alexander made a host of changes, while England coach Tracey Neville stuck solid with her regular starting seven.
For England, Mentor had an enormous game once again. She got on top of Australian captain Caitlin Bassett in the first two quarters, then dominated Caitlin Thwaites in the third, before Bassett returned for the final quarter. Mentor had 12 possession gains for the match and was a constant menace when Australia had the ball. Serena Guthrie also starred in the pivotal role of centre.
For Australia, former captain Laura Geitz had five gains in the first half, but was then replaced by Courtney Bruce and spent what would be the last two quarters of her international career on the bench. This was just one of numerous positional changes made by Alexander as she tried to find the winning formula.
Australia led 38-36 at three-quarter time, and it appeared they had weathered the English storm when they extended their lead to four goals in the final period. It was then that Australian centre Kim Ravaillion unfortunately made two crucial errors, both of which the England team gleefully pounced on.
With the scores level at 51-51 and only 14 seconds left on the clock, England had the last possession of the game. In a frantic ending, a rushed Jo Harten threw up an air-ball which somehow fell fortuitously into the hands of Helen Housby. Housby then missed with her shot too. But Bruce was penalised. Given a second chance, Housby didn’t miss this time. Final score: England 52 Australia 51
England had done it. Neville and her team had pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of international netball. Cue scenes of absolute delirium as the England players celebrated madly. It was a huge moment for English netball. They had stood up when it counted on the biggest stage, just as they had promised, but failed to do on previous occasions.
The Australian players were shell shocked, as were most of the crowd and no doubt most of those watching on television. They had played well below the level they had displayed earlier in the tournament. But you can put that down to the pressure England put on them, creating doubts in their minds where there had been none to that point.
While England’s win was the biggest story of the Commonwealth Games, the second biggest story was the performance of New Zealand. For a country with such a proud history on the international stage, the Silver Ferns were by this stage, a total train wreck. There were reports of infighting, the morale was low, and it was obvious that coach Janine Southby was struggling to find any answers.
Malawi, the country that had pushed New Zealand so hard at the previous Games in Glasgow, managed to beat them for the very first time. If not for Uganda’s surprise two goal win over Malawi the previous day, the kiwis would have failed to even make the semi-finals. As it was, they were no match for Australia when they got there, going down by 21 goals. Beaten 60-55 by a deserving Jamaican team in the bronze medal game, New Zealand went home without a medal of any colour, the first time that had ever happened in a major tournament.
It continued what was for them a dreadful run of form, with the team managing just six wins from their last 18 tests. They had lost their last two matches against England, their last three against Jamaica, and their last six against Australia. Not surprisingly, Southby resigned as New Zealand coach in July. Also not surprisingly, Sunshine Coast Lightning coach Noeline Taurua was named as Southby’s replacement on August 30.
Some kiwis had been disappointed when Taurua wasn’t given the job instead of Southby initially, and at this point in time she was seen as the only viable option to lift the Ferns. Perhaps the only surprising thing about Taurua’s appointment was that she was going to take over the reigns of New Zealand while still fulfilling her 2019 contract at the Lightning.
It was no wonder Taurua wanted to continue at the Sunshine Coast, as just days before the announcement, she had guided them to their second straight Super Netball title. Lightning overcame the loss of their first three matches of the season, finishing strongly to win their last seven games straight, five of them away from home.
In a dramatic grand final in Perth, Lightning defeated the West Coast Fever 62-59 in front of 13,722 fans, a record crowd for an Australian national league game. Fever led by as much as seven goals in the second quarter, before Lightning rallied. A dominant third quarter then had the visitors up by three goals. After being challenged and briefly headed in the last quarter, Taurua’s team responded strongly in the closing minutes to take the title.
Despite the loss, Fever had been the big improvers in 2018, thanks to the recruiting of Jhaniele Fowler. She dominated right from the start of the competition, scoring 66 goals in the opening round against the Thunderbirds to set the record for most goals in a Super Netball game, a record she equalled in round eight against the same opposition.
Fowler’s combination with goal attack Nat Medhurst had proven to be a hit, but at season’s end, Fever incredibly decided that Medhurst was no longer needed. Her dumping and the very messy way it was handled by West Coast, got many people offside.
Medhurst eventually found a new team for 2019 in the Magpies, alongside Geva Mentor and Kelsey Browne, who had come from Lightning. Also leaving the two time champions was Australian captain Caitlin Bassett, who joined the Giants.
Meanwhile, Laura Geitz announced her retirement, ending a tremendous career where she led the Firebirds to three ANZ Championships and the Diamonds to a World Cup and Commonwealth Games gold.
One thing that certainly had people talking during 2018 was the introduction of bonus points in Super Netball. In an effort to increase excitement, it was decided that teams would be awarded a point for each quarter they won. And it did have the desired effect of increasing interest during matches, but at what cost?
For large parts of the season, it appeared that bonus points might see a team miss out on a finals berth to another team with less wins. Luckily, that didn’t eventuate, and Super Netball was delighted with the interest they had created.
Meanwhile in New Zealand, Southern netball legend Wendy Frew bowed out on a high as Steel replicated Sunshine Coast’s feat of winning back to back titles. Having totally dominated the league in 2017, Steel was now without their superstar goal shooter Jhaniele Fowler. As a result, a strong Central Pulse team was considered the front runner.
It looked that way in the final too, as Pulse shot out to a 16-10 lead at quarter time, and they were still leading by that six goal margin with less than four minutes to go in the game. Subconsciously, some of the Pulse players no doubt thought they had their first title in the bag. But what came next was almost unbelievable; a mixture of Pulse panic and Steel spirit.
In those last four extraordinary minutes, Steel scored seven straight goals, six of them to Fowler’s replacement Jen O’Connell, who ended up with 40/44. Pulse didn’t even manage to put up another shot at goal until Ameliaranne Ekenasio’s unsuccessful last ditch effort to draw the game. Final score: Steel 54 Pulse 53.
The Steel team was understandably ecstatic, while the Pulse players were totally shattered. They had no answer for what had happened in the closing minutes. It was probably of little consolation that they went on to win the Super Club competition less than two weeks later.
Continuing with the theme of back to back winners, Wasps also won their second straight Superleague title in 2018. Not only did Wasps repeat their success but they defeated the same opposition (Loughborough Lightning), and by exactly the same scoreline (55-51). It was a fourth straight Superleague title for Tamsin Greenway as player-coach, two with Surrey Storm and two with Wasps. With that, she decided to step away from club coaching.
Just before quarter time in the final, Lightning’s Beth Cobden went down with a knee injury, and it was later confirmed that she had ruptured her ACL. Having played a key role in England’s Commonwealth Games success a few months earlier, it was hoped that she would be fit for the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool.
In the end of year internationals, we saw the return of a couple of Silver Ferns legends. With Noeline Taurua now in charge, Casey Kopua and Laura Langman were both now back in black. There were signs of a comeback, including a good win over Australia in the third Constellation Cup test. But the Diamonds still won the series 3-1, as well as the Quad Series. So there was no doubt they were still favourites for the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool.
2018 Honour Roll
Commonwealth Games: England
Constellation Cup: Australia
January Quad Series: Australia
September Quad Series: Australia
Suncorp Super Netball: Sunshine Coast Lightning
ANZ Premiership: Southern Steel
Super-Club: Central Pulse
UK Superleague: Wasps Netball
Liz Ellis Diamond: Liz Watson
NS World’s Best Netballer: Geva Mentor