GIANTS Netball are enjoying a brilliant beginning to Suncorp Super Netball 2021, with four wins from as many starts, poised to equal their competition record of five opening wins in 2017. However, their next three fixtures are against three of the best in Swifts, Lightning, and the also undefeated Fever in round five. These games are shaping up as the crystal ball for the final order of the top four.
Two other teams are looking to protect their season for other reasons, languishing with no victories in the first four rounds. Vixens, who previously always won at least three of their first five hit-outs in SSN, are now desperate to pull themselves out of a rut – and Thunderbirds, who had their best SSN season in 2020 with five wins, three from the first five games, need to salvage confidence and pride.
Inaugural head coach of GIANTS, as well as of Sydney Cenovis in the Mobil League, Sydney Swifts in the Commonwealth Bank Trophy, and New South Wales Swifts in the ANZ Championship, Julie Fitzgerald AM, was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2020, recognising more than 25 years coaching at national league level and other services to netball. She gave her thoughts on key players and team culture of each of the GIANTS’ next three opponents, and we share analysis on key match-ups.
What does it take to make the finals? Historically, fourth place at the end of 14 rounds has been Magpies with nine wins and 106% goal difference in 2017, Lightning with eight wins and one draw and 108% in 2018, Magpies in 2019 – seven wins, two draws, 102% – and last year Swifts on eight wins, one draw, and 101%.
This sets an estimated target for assured finals berth at nine wins and perhaps 106-108% goal difference, but with some luck, a team can sneak in with eight wins, or seven wins and two draws and better than 100% differential.
2020 was a year of frustration for GIANTS, who had their worst start of one win and one draw in the first five matches, finishing the season in sixth. Only an extra ten goals spread strategically across their two draws and three close losses could have seen them in second place, contesting the major semi-final.
This year out of hub life has produced a massive turnaround, with a very flexible and talented squad already beating fancied rivals Firebirds by seven in round three, and the reigning premiers Vixens by 14 in round four. There’s a palpable improvement in attitude, with happy and relaxed players. “[The feeling in camp] is good, but it’s been pretty good right from the beginning”, said Julie Fitzgerald. “We’ve prepared well [for the season] and I think we’re getting some really good rewards for it now.”
Round five now sees a tantalising clash between the polished Sydneysiders and the barnstorming West Coast Fever. Considering the next big match, Julie Fitzgerald agreed it was a key showdown between two adaptable teams. “I was very happy with the flexibility we had before we lost Kiera [Austin]. And losing Kris [Manu’a] for a while as well, I think we’ve covered that really well. Fever is another very flexible team.”
Irrespective of who takes the points, these two teams seem to already have booked a berth in finals, assuming there are no injury woes. While no team has ever won more than 12 regular season games (Lightning, minor premiers in 2019), Perth in their current form could do equal or better, with an average win of 11 goals so far this year. Even with 12 competition points deducted for historical salary cap breaches, their massive goal difference of 120% and 12 or more wins would still see them past the “safe” qualifying bar of nine wins. GIANTS have no such handicap, and in the two seasons where they finished in the top 3 entering finals they had won at least five of the first seven – winning any of the next three difficult games will see them hit that benchmark.
Fitzgerald has respect for the tight team culture of Fever. “I think they’re really well structured, I think they’re very well disciplined, they know what works”, she said. “They also know exactly what’s expected of them every time every time they take the court. No matter how much pressure you put on them they have that little safety valve to throw it up to Jhaniele [Fowler], and she’s so strong under the post.”
One of the few glaring differences in these teams is the number of intercepts in four rounds so far – 22 for Fever seems fairly good, until you see the impressive 34 taken by GIANTS. As Brandley, Price and Parmenter are scoring well on that measure, they have the form to stop the ball before it gets fed to the Jamaican shooting superpower.
Another item of interest is the Fever line-up, especially the goal attack position. Alice Teague-Neeld has started all matches so far averaging 1.4 points, 4 goal assists, and 0.5 turnovers per quarter. She has been benched in each match and Sasha Glasgow has come on with largely better statistics, notably 2.8 points, 7 assists, and 0.9 turnovers each quarter. Coincidentally, each goal attack has had exactly 118 minutes of play, but while Teague-Neeld’s minutes have dropped from 43 initially to 19 in a game, Glasgow’s rose from 16 minutes in round one to 40 in round four. Coach Stacey Marinkovich, having given incumbent player Teague-Neeld the start so far, may now opt to use Glasgow from the beginning.
In round six the Sydney derby will be a critical mark of success for the two local teams, setting them up for at least a home final or the major semi-final. Swifts have already gone down to Lightning and Fever in tight tussles, and beat Firebirds in extra time. The round four loss to Lightning showed their through-court play buckle under pressure in the final eight minutes, giving away multiple intercepts to Karla Pretorius and Phumza Maweni. Swifts know that wins against Magpies and GIANTS in rounds five and six will be necessary to keep them in the top four.
The form guide from 2020 shows Swifts barely ahead of GIANTS, taking a two-goal victory first up, and later on a draw. “I think the biggest thing with the Swifts is it’s so hard to get the ball off them, they’re very reluctant [to take risks], they’re very patient and work the ball around”, observed Fitzgerald. “[Also] I think Sam Wallace is having an exceptional season, and Sarah Klau is really stepping up this year as well.” Indeed, Wallace is ranked fourth in the league for Nissan Net Points on 275, and third for number of goals with 168, at an amazing 96%. Klau is fourth for deflections on 20. No other Swifts players enter the top five for key stats after round four, perhaps belying the amount of rotation of their squad on court and also especially the balance their attackers have in feeding the circle.
GIANTS have different strengths to neutralise the Swifts shooters – Sam Poolman holds top spot for defensive rebounds on 11 and April Brandley sits fifth in deflections with 19. Further up the court, Jo Harten ranks number three for offensive rebounds at 16, and Jamie-Lee Price fifth in intercepts with eight.
Added to that, their wing attack Maddie Hay and centre Price are placed second and third respectively for NNP, and both are in the top five for goal assists. Both their shooters Jo Harten and Sophie Dwyer are in the top five for successful supershots, with combined accuracy 52% for 2-pointers. Harten’s creativity and Dwyer’s safe hands, sharp feeds, and good shooting accuracy and volume are likely to overpower the Swifts back line.
The last challenge for GIANTS before the back half of season 2021 commences is the Sunshine Coast Lightning. The Queenslanders have three wins thus far, versus Swifts, Magpies, and Vixens, and a heavy loss dealt by their 2020 bogey team, Fever. West Coast annihilated Lightning in the 2020 hub year by 24, 20, and 14, with the zippy Perth midcourt and towering Fowler at goal shooter unable to be stopped. This had been a stark contrast to 2019 results between the two, when Lightning won by 25 and by eight.
Lightning has had the measure of GIANTS just slightly of late, with one-goal and two-goal wins last year, and in 2019 better winning margins of 11 and four in regular season games. It’s not obvious which team has the ascendancy currently, with the rise in confidence of Cara Koenen after playing four matches of the 2020 Constellation Cup as a newly minted Diamond. “I think they’ve got players who are really developing as well”, said Fitzgerald. “Koenen is a whole new player to what she was last year. We’re fortunate because we get to train against a moving circle every week.”
Sunshine Coast have lost marquee star Laura Langman, and probably have a less balanced and flexible team than GIANTS, especially with the set defence combination of Karla Pretorius and Phumza Maweni, plus no experienced midcourt options on the bench. Incorporating Binian Hunt in round four got Lightning the win via a change in chemistry, but she was too early and not demanding enough on her leads as a wing attack.
Meanwhile, GIANTS have a plethora of backup from wing attack back to goal keeper, and some stunning form of even the newest players such as Dwyer, Hay, and Amy Sligar. Perhaps it will come down to the concentration and passion of two of the league’s craftiest players, Harten and Pretorius, that will determine the outcome in round seven. Fitzgerald is all-too wary of the uncanny skills of the South African. “If you do get a lead, that’s when Karla is at her best, is winning ball back when they really need it. A lot of their coming back towards the end of the game can be attributed to Karla.” The ability of the GIANTS front four to nullify Pretorius and Maweni by avoiding slow lobs or cross-court balls is critical to achieving victory.
So, what of Vixens and Thunderbirds? Make no mistake, Vixens are a gutsy champion team with plenty of smart, experienced players and astute coaching and support staff. They have twice been minor premiers, in 2017 and 2020, and they are the only team to achieve the double of minor premiership and grand final success in the same season. It seems the odds are direly against them, due to the loss of veteran attackers Liz Watson, Caitlin Thwaites, and Tegan Philip all in one go. Even though Mwai Kumwenda is a machine at goal shooter, she has never had to be a play maker as such, leaving Kate Moloney to not just captain but orchestrate the whole front line filled with rookies. Add to that the diminished form of the normally impenetrable back line, the ongoing experiments with personnel not lending answers yet, and they may well remain in the doldrums for a while to come.
If eight wins is the realistic minimum to make top four, Vixens now have to pull out victories in eight of the next ten rounds. Not all hope is lost, however, as they can build momentum if they manage to beat Firebirds on the road, Thunderbirds at home, and Magpies in the local derby in round seven. A precedent was set for such a turnaround by Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic in 2012 in the ANZ Championship, with four initial losses and 12 straight wins including the grand final. But the eight-win target is fickle – in 2018 Vixens were fifth despite eight victories and 105% goal difference, whilst in 2019 they were third with eight wins and a draw and 108%.
Then there is the Thunderbirds, currently seventh with 4% better goal difference than Vixens. The South Australians generally have poor starts to the season – they can sometimes pull out a win in round one or two, but they have never had more than three wins in the first half of the season, or more than five in the entire year, both achieved in 2020.
Thunderbirds don’t have a favourable run in rounds five to seven – Lightning, Vixens, and Swifts. Conquering the 2019 premiers Swifts might be wishful thinking, but comparing the 2021 results of other teams shows the door is open to challenge Vixens and Lightning. Recently against GIANTS, both Vixens and Thunderbirds both lost by 14, and Thunderbirds had a smaller loss against Fever than Vixens. Then, the Vixens got quite close to Lightning, only down by five goals. While scoreline comparisons don’t account for the critical matchups and the learning and improvement, for Adelaide it is a season-rescuing period.
Leading lights GIANTS will cautiously enjoy top spot, knowing they are now being hunted by all the other teams. No matter the keen speculation from the fans and experts, Fitzgerald avoids focusing on any particular moment or game as defining their season. She offers the classic adage – “I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself, at the moment…. I don’t set targets in terms of exactly ‘that’s our goal’ because, what do you say, I want to win four of the first six? I want to win SIX of the first six!
“My attitude is going into every game wanting to win it, so I am week by week focussed more than anything else. But, in the back of your mind you know what you have to do to make the top four and how many games you can afford to drop, so that’s in the back of your mind, but from a team focus point of view I just play week by week” – the sage advice available from a five-time premiership coach.