By Ian Harkin
A fascinating signing period has come and gone in Suncorp Super Netball. It has certainly created a lot of interest among netball fans, particularly with no international netball in Australia to take the spotlight. There were a few surprise moves involving some high profile players, which kept everyone guessing, but in general, most teams have in fact remained relatively stable, with just minor changes.
One interesting factor is that there will be just one import in 2022 that wasn’t involved this year. A handful of other internationals have also left, so overall there will be less imports than in previous years. This means more young Australian players getting a chance. Several training partners have been elevated to full time contracts which is great to see.
But there is one issue that has become a big talking point in recent years and even more so this year. More than 40% of the import players currently in SSN play the same position. This breakdown gives a good idea of the problem confronting any Australian goal shooter right now… Imports per position: GS – 7, GA – 1, WA – 0, C – 0, WD – 2, GD – 3, GK – 4
With squads limited to just ten full time players, sadly it means there’s no room in any of the teams for exciting Indigenous shooter Donnell Wallam or even for former Australian captain Caitlin Bassett, a situation which has created headlines. Having so many internationals blocking the local pathways in one playing position, is not a good situation for the future of Australian netball or indeed for the Diamonds. It will be interesting to see if there are any rule changes in future seasons to account for this.
After the signing period, what are we left with? There is a good mix of talent across all eight teams and there is no one side that anyone could possibly regard as easy-beats. Some clubs have certainly fared better than others when it comes to the recruitment of big names, but there are reasons why each team should have a certain degree of optimism heading into 2022.
Here is our summary of the way each team is shaping up, starting with the defending premiers.
NEW SOUTH WALES SWIFTS
The off-season for Swifts could be considered a bit of a mixed bag. Fresh from their triumph in the 2021 Super Netball grand final, Swifts would have been delighted to be able to re-sign their entire starting seven for a period of two years. No doubt this was their prime objective. However, that great news was countered by the fact that their other three squad members from this year have all departed. All three most likely felt their game could progress further by a move elsewhere.
English international Nat Haythornthwaite is returning to the UK to play for Thunder. This was probably a good move for both parties. With Swifts strong in the attacking midcourt positions, Haythornthwaite wasn’t getting as much court time as she would have liked (or deserved). And her departure has allowed the club to sign Allie Smith from Vixens. Smith is a solid player who will add depth off the bench as she can play several positions, but it’s likely she will mainly be used to strengthen the troublesome wing defence position.
The two other big outs for Swifts are defender Lauren Moore and shooter Sophie Garbin. While Garbin was ostensibly a bench player for Swifts, she is much better than that. She’s played some incredible matches in the past four seasons and will be missed. Moore and Garbin have been replaced by the talented duo of Teigan O’Shannassy and Kelly Singleton. Both players have been in and around the NSW pathway system for a few years, but have so far had limited opportunities at this level. This is a great chance for them to now play full time with such a strong club.
It’s fair to say that on paper at least, this Swifts squad is not as strong overall, and not nearly as experienced, as the champion team from this year. Briony Akle still has a dynamite looking starting seven at her disposal however, and it will be interesting to see just how much she utilises her bench in 2022. Can they go back to back? They should certainly be there or thereabouts when finals come around.
Fresh, from a runner-up finish in this year’s SSN, there are three changes to the GIANTS Netball squad for 2022. On the plus side, they have managed to re-sign all but one of their grand final starting team for a further two years, but they have also lost three big names from this year’s squad. They’ve been replaced by a recruit from Swifts and two exciting locals coming through the ranks.
One of the biggest moves of the off-season was that of goal attack Kiera Austin who has now switched to Vixens. Austin suffered an ACL injury in the opening game of this year, and watched on as 19-year-old Sophie Dwyer performed incredibly well as her replacement. Deciding between the two would have been a tough call for Julie Fitzgerald next year, but it’s a call she doesn’t have to make now. Another 19-year-old, Matisse Letherbarrow now becomes the third shooter. She has been a training partner and injury replacement in recent years and looks more than ready to step up to the main squad.
In defence, GIANTS are missing two more regulars in Kristiana Manu’a and Sam Poolman. Manu’a has moved to New Zealand to play in the ANZ Premiership, while Poolman has rather surprisingly retired from netball. Poolman has been a great team player and had shown some of her best form this year, including a masterclass against Jhaniele Fowler in her second last game. She will be hard to replace.
Having played the role of back up goal keeper well in recent years, Matilda McDonell is likely to be given the first chance to step into that role. She will have strong competition however from new signing Lauren Moore. Moore played an effective role off the bench at wing defence for Swifts this year, but a move to GIANTS will give her a chance of more court time in the circle. Meanwhile, yet another promising 19-year-old, Amy Sligar has been signed to cover for the loss of Manu’a.
Much like Swifts, the GIANTS squad for 2022 is down on this year’s team in terms of experience and overall strength and depth, but the basis of a very strong starting seven is still there. Again, it will be interesting to see how the bench is utilised by Fitzgerald. Expect to see them fighting it out for a finals spot again.
WEST COAST FEVER
It seems to be a case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it at West Coast Fever. Having overcome a 12 point salary cap penalty to eventually finish third this year, new coach Dan Ryan clearly feels he has the right mix of talent to go all the way and claim Fever’s first ever title in 2022. There is just one solitary change to the 2021 line up, with promising defender Rudi Ellis coming in to replace Olivia Lewis. Ellis performed very creditably late in the season for Firebirds and she looks like a valuable addition to the team.
Eight of the ten players in the squad have actually signed for two seasons, so it is clear that the club is looking for stability. Once again, the team looks particularly strong. It has good depth, with the bench players all having the ability to contribute strongly. It would be a major surprise if Fever doesn’t at the very least make the top four in 2022.
SUNSHINE COAST LIGHTNING
After a signing period full of interest, there are four changes to the Sunshine Coast Lightning squad for 2022. The initial disappointment of losing some fan favourites has switched to enthusiasm after the recruitment of top class replacements and exciting new talent.
The club was no doubt rocked early on by the shock retirement of foundation player Maddy McAuliffe, who has decided to step away from netball to concentrate on a career in the legal field. Added to that was the departure of Binnian Hunt who has moved to New Zealand, while it was also announced that both Phumza Maweni and Peace Proscovia would not be returning in 2022.
Some big names were needed to fill the void left by these four players. The first was a stunning announcement as Lightning signed defender Tara Hinchliffe from the Firebirds. This was a surprise move for many, not the least because Hinchliffe is currently on the long term injured list, having ruptured her ACL towards the end of the 2021 season. Lightning is hopeful that she will be ready to go at some point during the 2022 season however.
The next big name was another defender. With those doubts over the availability of Hinchliffe, Lightning clearly wanted to add even more strength to the circle. And they achieved this big time with the signing of Kadie-Ann Dehaney. Dehaney has steadily improved in recent years and is now one of the most exciting defenders in the competition. She deserves more court time than she was getting at the Vixens.
Lightning also signed exciting youngster Reilley Batcheldor who had been a Firebirds training partner. She now comes into the squad as a back up shooter who is capable of playing both positions in the circle. The other new spot goes to attacking midcourter Annie Miller who had been a training partner at GIANTS and made her SSN debut earlier this year as an injury replacement. Both these players are members of the Australian 21U squad and have bright futures ahead of them.
After a long anxious wait for Lightning fans, captain Karla Pretorius also re-signed. So the team has somewhat of a defence-heavy list now and without McAuliffe, some flexibility has been lost. Although seen as a circle defender, it would seem that Kate Shimmin is a good chance to fill the wing defence position.
Exactly what happens to the defensive line up when Hinchliffe returns from injury is anyone’s guess, but there are certainly a variety of options there for Kylee Byrne. Lightning has the proud record of being the only SSN team to make finals in all five years of its existence. This team looks well placed to continue that record. Interestingly, only star shooters, Cara Koenen and Steph Wood have signed on for two years.
The Queensland Firebirds were the talk of much of the signing period, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they lost two big names, in injured defender Tara Hinchliffe who left for Lightning, and shooter Tippah Dwan who switched to the Thunderbirds. Rudi Ellis, who had performed very well in Hinchliffe’s absence in the latter part of the season, also moved to Fever.
Mia Stower was promoted from training partner to cover for the loss of Dwan, while Ruby Bakewell-Doran was likewise promoted to cover for Ellis as back up defender. Both of these new players have shown enough promise in their career to date to suggest they will be good signings. But a replacement first choice goal keeper was much harder to find.
Hinchliffe had been a consistently strong player for Firebirds in recent years, and anything less than a top quality replacement would have been seen as a huge loss. Time went on and there was much consternation in the netball world with how long it was taking Firebirds to name what was their final player. But at the eleventh hour, they came up with a tremendous signing.
England international Eboni Usoro-Brown was announced to fill the last spot as Hinchliffe’s replacement. Usoro-Brown becomes the third mother in the team, and indeed, she cited the successful way that both Kim Ravaillion and Gretel Bueta had been supported at the Firebirds as one of the reasons for her decision to sign.
Despite some negative talk about Firebirds’ recruiting, the signing of Usoro-Brown means Megan Anderson has actually ended up with a strong Firebirds side more than capable of pushing for a finals spot. Strength and depth wise, the team is not that dissimilar to this year’s.
One of the biggest moves in the entire off-season was that of Sophie Garbin, who has switched to Collingwood after being at Swifts since 2018. She replaces Kalifa McCollin in the shooting circle. Over the past four seasons, Garbin has been part of two title-winning teams, but she has also spent most of that time on the bench behind two top class imports. This is a big move on her behalf because even at Magpies, she’s still not assured of a start.
Garbin’s best position is without a doubt goal shooter, but incumbent Shimona Nelson has really come into her own in that position this year. Nelson is now more consistent, more dominant under the post, and a big reason for Magpies’ better showing. It’s a similar story with goal attack Gabby Sinclair. 2021 was definitely her best season to date and she has just started to really assert herself in that position.
So it will be a tough ask for Garbin to come in and automatically command a start over either player. She will have to work very hard for court time, but she is determined to do just that. Whatever happens, it is a great coup by Magpies to recruit an Australian Diamond and their team instantly looks much stronger as a result. In previous years, there has been no real back up at goal shooter if Nelson was not performing well, but that is certainly not the case any longer.
Elsewhere, the team looks quite settled. The only other change is talented midcourter Maggie Lind being elevated from training partner to the squad, in place of Mel Bragg. Under the coaching of Nicole Richardson, Magpies were one of the big improvers this year and with what looks to be a stronger squad with greater depth and more flexibility, there’s no reason they shouldn’t aim for a top four finish in 2022.
Of all the Super Netball clubs, forecasting the likely 2022 starting team is definitely toughest at the Thunderbirds. It’s almost impossible. The two certainties appear to be the bookends in Lenize Potgieter and Shamera Sterling, but elsewhere, there are many different options available to coach Tania Obst. It is now a matter of making it all work.
The club’s prized off-season signing, goal attack Tippah Dwan, comes into the squad at the expense of Sam Gooden. After playing so well in 2020, the return of Gretel Bueta this year saw Dwan relegated to the bench at Firebirds. She has clearly headed to Thunderbirds in search of more court time.
But what does this mean for Georgie Horjus? If Dwan gets the nod as starting goal attack, will Horjus be moved to wing attack? And as both players are good long range shooters, will they sometimes combine in the circle during the power play? There are so many questions to be answered, but this signing does make the team look stronger on paper at least.
Shadine van der Merwe has moved to the UK Superleague and she has been replaced by exciting midcourter Tayla Williams in the only other change to the line up. Williams made her SSN debut in 2020 and has now been elevated from training partner to the full squad. Again, there are numerous options to cover for the loss of van der Merwe at wing defence. Hannah Petty, Maisie Nankivell, Latanya Wilson and Williams herself could all possibly fill that role.
As mentioned, flexibility is not a problem for this squad, but can they find the consistency that has been sadly lacking in recent years? Thunderbirds are the only Super Netball team which is yet to play finals in the five year history of the competition. This team has an exciting look about it, but it will take a mighty big effort if they are to set that record straight.
Could Vixens perform the incredible feat of going from first to last, then back to first again? Looking at their lineup for 2022, that appears a distinct possibility. There were two huge problem areas that led to the team’s wooden spoon performance this year: wing attack and goal attack. Those two positions have now been filled very well, leading to great optimism that Simone McKinnis’s team can be a title threat again.
The first piece of good news is not a recruiting decision, but simply a return from injury. The loss of Liz Watson this year was massive. Youngster Hannah Mundy is promising, and she performed very well given her inexperience. But Watson is the best wing attack in the world, and with her back in the line up, the Vixens automatically look stronger.
The shooting circle was always going to be impacted heavily this year as players of the experience of Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip are mighty tough to replace. Try as they might, Kaylia Stanton and Ruby Barkmeyer just weren’t able to play well enough, consistently enough, for a team with such high standards as Vixens. With that in mind, the signing of Kiera Austin from GIANTS is huge news.
Austin is returning from an ACL injury, but given that she regains the form that saw her debut strongly for the Diamonds this year, she is a tremendous signing for the goal attack position. She will team up with the ever-reliable Mwai Kumwenda at goal shooter in one of the most formidable combinations in the league. Meanwhile, Rahni Samason showed more than enough in her two appearances as replacement player this year to earn a full time position in the squad. She is an excellent backup in both shooting positions.
In the defensive end, Vixens have lost Kadie-Ann Dehaney, who has departed for the Sunshine Coast. Recruited from Fever, Olivia Lewis is a capable replacement, but it’s unlikely she will have quite the same impact off the bench that Dehaney has had on numerous occasions in her time in Melbourne. Expect to see the combination of Mannix and Weston play the majority of time in the circle.
All in all, the Vixens would have to be happy with their squad for 2022. The overall strength, depth and flexibility of this squad is a definite improvement on this year. Not a club used to failure, they will want to put right their disappointing 2021 season, and the players on this list have an excellent chance to do just that.