It had been a long road for both teams to reach this point of the competition. The Swifts were electrifying at the start of the season and enjoyed a buffer of bonus points on the ladder that enabled them to hold on to their second spot at the end of regular rounds. They have been brave in the face of adversity, with three season ending injuries including captain Maddy Proud.
The Vixens have been a slow burn, promising so much with a star-studded line up and while they have been inconsistent this year, they have certainly peaked at the right time. In their semi-final last week, they disposed easily of a Magpies team who had been in red-hot form on their way to the semi-finals.
Though the Swifts had accounted for the Vixens on both occasions during the regular rounds this season, finals netball is a different beast and both teams had absolutely everything to play for. The loser would go home disappointed in their 2019 campaign, but the winner would get to take on the grand final against the Sunshine Coast Lightning.
The Swifts started the preliminary final the same way they started the season, with blistering pace. Vixens shooter, Caitlin Thwaites was nervous on her first shot that set the tone for her time on court. The Swifts energy was palpable and when Maddy Turner got her hand to ball to cause a turnover, the crowd almost lifted the roof off Quay Centre. Neither the Swifts or their fans had come for anything less than a victory.
Quiet last week, Paige Hadley started strong for the Swifts and was already being the dominant feeder and link throughout the court. Her battle with Kate Moloney was a key match-up and in the first quarter Hadley looked to have her measure.
In the paper this week Swifts coach Briony Akle spoke about how luck had nothing to do with the Swifts playing finals netball, and within the first 10 minutes of the first quarter, they were out to prove a point. With the Swifts up by three after five minutes, the Vixens needed to find some energy. So when Liz Watson sighted Thwaites alone under the post and delivered a superb ball it needed to be finished, but Thwaites was unable to reward Watson’s vision. When Sarah Klau took the rebound, the Swifts well and truly had their tails in the air.
The Vixens were unable to find any rhythm and were having trouble finding any space in attack; the Swifts were doing a great job of confusing the space and hard work by all the defenders meant that Watson and Moloney were unable to find the circle edge. They were trying to feed the ball to their shooters with a lot of hands over pressure which was giving Klau and Turner an extra half a second to see the ball.
In what was the best display of netball that Turner has ever produced, she was instrumental in the lead the Swifts mounted in the first quarter; alone she managed two intercepts and three gains, was a link in the transition up court and kept Tegan Philip to just five goals.
In contrast to her stellar performance against Geva Mentor last week, Thwaites had uncharacteristically missed three shots at goal and Vixens coach Simone McKinnis wasted no time in making the substitution, bringing Mwai Kumwenda on in hopes of sparking some confidence in her team.
The Vixens simply had no answers for the Swifts in the first quarter, Thwaites and Emily Mannix had been benched, which spoke volumes of the intensity, aggression and desire the Swifts had started the game with. The Swifts blew the Vixens out of the water with an incredible 15 minutes and with the score at 19-12 going into the first break.
Kadie-Ann Dehaney replaced Mannix in defence and she delivered early with a beautiful deflection. When the ball sailed over Natalie Haythornwaite’s head in the Swifts’ attack end the Vixens had a moment where they may have been able to sink back-to-back goals. However, still unable to find their timing in attack, Watson threw the ball over the head of Moloney and the pressure was released.
The Swifts were very deliberate and their attack line was patient, playing with such confidence that their three seconds felt like five. Housby would draw the defenders with her drive and the back space would open nicely for Sam Wallace. The Vixens defenders were trying hard, but the silkiness and calmness of the Swifts was frustrating them.
Whenever the Vixens looked like they were mounting any sort of attack the Swifts defenders were there to ruin the plan with Turner again playing a dynamic role. The Swifts were enjoying a 60/40 run of possession and they pushed the score line out to 10 with seven minutes on the clock.
Renae Ingles was doing her best against a spirited Haythornwaite, knowing it could have been her last time on court, Ingles was prepared to leave nothing in the tank. The contact penalties were also mounting against the Vixens and they were now double that of the Swifts. They badly needed to adjust their style of play to stay in the game. The Swifts had all the momentum and were up by 11. All that remained to be seen was if they could hold their nerve for the last 30 minutes of the game.
The third quarter was starkly different to the first two. The Melbourne Vixens had re-grouped and came out with some serious intensity. They had 30 minutes to claw their way back into the game and keep Ingles on the court for one more week.
A wave of panic seemed to fall over the Swifts; the confidence with which they were letting the ball go had disappeared and though they were still in control on the scoreboard, the energy in the stadium had changed. They had stopped their leads to the ball and were second guessing their passes. The Vixens were in turn testing the nerve of the Swifts.
Some beautiful work in defence from Jo Weston started the Vixens on the right foot in the third quarter and suddenly the timing and flow down court for the Vixens had appeared.
A swap in the midcourt between Moloney and Watson was working well. Watson was finding some space on the circle edge that she had not been able to find previously and the usually loud Swifts crowd had fallen a little quiet. Three goals in a row at the start of the third, gave the Vixens the confidence they had been missing and Weston and Mannix were out hunting for the ball.
The possession on court had swung the way of the Vixens and a beautiful crosscourt intercept by Mannix gave the Vixens consecutive goals that was backed up with a gain by Weston a few moments later. Within a blink the Vixens were only down by four goals and the pressure was back on the Swifts, who looked stunned.
Sophie Garbin entered the game with a couple of minutes on the clock to try and get the attack line firing again, but the Swifts needed more across the court. In what has been a breakout season, Klau came up with a huge rebound that kept their score line at five. Turner also delivered a huge rebound on a Vixens centre that was converted.
With momentum swinging ever so slightly back in favour of the Swifts, the final quarter was set up for a grandstand finish, with the Vixens daring to dream. They had won that quarter 15-11 and seven goals was all that was in it. But for those who said at the start of the season, throughout the season and in recent weeks that the Swifts were not up to finals standard, they took the whole 15 minutes of the last quarter to silence their critics.
Klau started the final quarter with a strong deflection and Wallace scored off it with a lay-up; it was in that 30 seconds that Swifts fans realised that their first grand final appearance in the Suncorp Super Netball competition might stop being a dream and be a reality. They had come out with blinkers on and a grand final in their sights.
The Vixens had been valiant during the game, but the moment Kumwenda missed a shot from right under the post, Klau took yet another rebound and the momentum shifted back to the Swifts’ favour.
Turner went to the bench to catch her breath and Sophie Halpin entered the game at wing defence and Katrina Rore moved to goal defence. They had no time to talk tactics and they would have to get on with the job quickly. Halpin has been a great impact player over this season and the trust shown in her by Akle to come on and get the job done has been well rewarded.
In the last quarter every pass was covered by the Vixens and the Swifts were having to work incredibly hard to find their shooters, taking a long time to make their way to the post, but such is their patient brand of netball. They stuck to their processes and continued to frustrate the Vixens with short, sharp passes that would eventually open space under the post.
With six minutes on the clock, the Swifts had once again put their foot down, found their intensity and stamped their claim on the match. Halpin took a huge hit by Weston in the final moments when both players put their bodies on the line and was forced to leave the court. After the game, the Swifts confirmed that will be fine to line up next week.
In the last moments of the match, the relief on the faces of the Swifts bench told the story of a team who have overcome a myriad of injuries and new combinations to make a grand final many said they couldn’t make. But their has been a new belief in this team this season, one that could not be shaken, even when their captain went down with a season ending injury.
They will go into the Suncorp Super Netball grand final as underdogs against the Sunshine Coast Lightning, and that will suit them just fine. The two teams left standing have been the benchmark of the competition this season and it is fitting that they meet to do battle one last time.
There is no doubt that the NSW Swifts will have to overcome the best in the business if they want to hold the trophy at the end of the game next week, but that was their plan at the start of the season and they have given themselves every opportunity to do it.
I said a few weeks ago, that you write the NSW Swifts off at your own peril, and today they showed why they are one of the last two teams in standing in the toughest netball competition in the world.
FINAL SCORE NSW SWIFTS 60 defeated MELBOURNE VIXENS 47
(19-12, 14-10, 11-15, 16-10)
MVP: Paige Hadley (Swifts)
SWIFTS | GS Sam Wallace, GA Helen Housby, WA Natalie Haythornthwaite, C Paige Hadley, WD Katrina Rore, GD Maddy Turner, GK Sarah Klau
Changes: Q3 GA Sophie Garbin; Q4 GA Housby, GD Rore, WD Sophie Halpin, WD Turner
VIXENS| GS Caitlin Thwaites, GA Tegan Philip, WA Liz Watson, C Kate Moloney, WD Renae Ingles, GD Jo Weston, GK Emily Mannix
Changes: Q1 GS Mwai Kumwenda, GK Kadie-Ann Dehaney; Q2 C Watson, WA Moloney, GK Mannix; Q4 WA Watson, C Moloney
S Wallace: 40/42 95%
H Housby: 19/21 91%
S Garbin: 1/1 100%
NSW Swifts 60/64 94%
C Thwaites: 4/7 57%
T Philip: 21/25 84%
M Kumwenda: 22/26 85%
Melbourne Vixens 47/58 81%
Nat Haythornthwaite 24
Paige Hadley 19
Liz Watson 16
Sarah Klau: 8
Emily Mannix: 7
Maddy Turner: 6
After the game:
Paige Hadley, NSW Swift centre talking to Cath Cox post game:
“…we knew the Vixens obviously last week came out really hard in that first quarter, so we had to match the intensity. I thought our first half was really good and then we withstood the intensity as they [Vixens] came at us.”
Maddy Proud, injured captain, addressing the crowd post game:
“…we knew the Vixens a such a quality side and they would come back firing, like they did. We just had to hang on and go back to the basics.”
Briony Akle, NSW Swifts coach post-match:
“I am most proud of the fact that they turned it around from last week and had a much better performance.”
“You never know how your team is going to turn up to play… they looked good during the week and I thought, yep, we’ve got it. [After] that first quarter they had the intensity and the smarts, the first quarter set it up.”
“The plan was to play good netball, however that looked, I knew the Vixens would come back at the back end, we just had to play much smarter netball than we did last week. Vixens are such an awesome side and I actually really do love playing against them… our theme was basic netball, do the basics well and all the rest will flow.”
“…I said to them [Swifts] the whole game, you have not got this, this game is not won until that final whistle, so we needed to keep that intensity up no matter what they brought at us.”
“We have lots of work to do still. I think grand final day is anyone’s game, no matter how well you come into it, so lots to do in the next six days… [our players] they needed to play this week, it will set us up well, hopefully.”
Maddy Turner, Swifts goal defence post-match:
“The want [to win] was incredible and I knew that if we had a good start, we could take that through [to then end] and when the defense end plays well, our attack end fires up as well. I just knew I had to get hands on ball and it happened.”
“Any of their [Vixens] feeder’s feed so well on the circle, so to keep them up [high] was our main game plan and it was paying off because they were throwing long balls in.”
“Last week there was a lot of talk, this week there was a lot of action and I think that showed today. Less talk, just do it… today we showed if we win our positions, we win the game.”
“We went back to vision at the start of the year and how fast we were moving the ball and how well we connected down court and around the circle and we wanted to play like that today.”
On beating the Lightning:
“We just have to play our game and just work hard in defence and get the ball back for our attackers, they can put it threw the ring, I trust them.”
“No one believed in us or thought we could make the grand final, but we did and we knew if we didn’t win today it would be a massive disappointment for our season. We just proved a lot of people wrong and we will try and do it next week as well.”