Following their resounding defeat in the major semi-final against minor premiers the Sunshine Coast Lightning and coming into the 2019 grand final as the underdogs, the New South Wales Swifts knew they had their work cut out for them.
For the Lightning, winning their last nine games on the trot, and all three previous games this season against the Swifts, the writing appeared to be on the wall: saying that this game was just a formality to win a third consecutive title and give outgoing champion coach, Noeline Taurua a fairy-tale ending to her time on the Sunshine Coast.
Regrettably, for the Lightning, nobody showed that script to the Swifts.
The Swifts started the game with the centre pass, and with a quick and confident 3-ball pass safely into the hands of goal shooter Sam Wallace who capitalised easily from under the post.
The first Lightning centre pass did not go as well, with a footwork call against goal attack Steph Wood, the ball was turned over and quickly moved downcourt by the Swifts and into goal shooter Wallace who again capitalised under the post, on her way to an MVP performance of 40/44.
The Swifts were out to a three-goal lead before the Lightning produced a laboured attacking effort. A deflection out of court by Swifts’ goalkeeper Sarah Klau in the Lightning goal third was bought back into play by centre Laura Langman. With a series of quick passes by all Lightning attackers and finished off by Cara Koenen the home side were able to get their first points on the board.
Both teams displayed early nerves, but it was the Swifts who appeared to quickly steady themselves into their own rhythm. Playing short, sharp and clean passes downcourt, driving forward to open up the passage of play and patiently throwing around, we were seeing a different Swifts than the team that played in the preliminary final.
Swifts defence in the Lightning third during the opening minutes was nothing short of smothering. Swifts goal defence Maddy Turner suffocated Steph Wood, who struggled to find any space for herself, particularly in the circle. Although Koenen shot an impressive and hard-fought 100% for the quarter, Klau stuck close with dogged determination as Koenen moved constantly around the circle. Swifts wing defence Katrina Rore and centre Paige Hadley applied unrelenting defensive pressure around the circle, causing the Lightning attack to labour rather than produce their usual lightning fast feeds.
With an intercept a piece for the first quarter, both Klau and Turner read the play well and lunged for every ball. Connecting well together, coach Briony Akle sees the pair as strong contenders for the Diamonds. “Hopefully they can keep working together and keep building and [be] that next combination for Australia”, she said following the game.
Wallace shot 11/12 for the quarter and kept Lightning goal keeper Phumza Maweni struggling to keep up. Holding her position and breaking at just the exact right time, Wallace worked well in and around the circle, easily opening up space for herself and was occassion found alone under the post.
With 12 feeds for the quarter, wing attack Natalie Haythornthwaite combined well with goal attack Helen Housby around the circle with precision feeds to and from each other. The English Roses team-mates have a strong understanding of each other’s moves and combined well to steadily edge Housby closer to the post. The Swifts quickly led by 6-points as the Lightning laboured to find their rhythm and start playing their own brand of netball.
A major playmaker, when Wood is on fire, the rest of the team lift, but they were failing to find their rhythm early on in the game as Wood’s confidence dipped. It was a worrying sign for Wood, and the Lightning, as she strained to find her measure, scoring a disappointing 0/2, before Peace Proscovia was subbed on forcing Koenan to goal attack and Wood to the bench. Proscovia made an immediate impact scoring 2/2 with two minutes remaining in the first quarter and reining the Swifts who led 16-12 going in the first break.
The start of the second quarter saw the Sunshine Coast Lightning show moments of brilliance to get within one goal of the Swifts.
Proscovia worked hard in the Lightning circle against Klau. Combining well with wing attack Laura Scherian, who has the extraordinary ability to drop balls into Proscovia with pin-point accuracy. Proscovia timed her moves to perfection, waiting for just the right moment before calling for the high ball. Extending her body, and with her incredibly long reach, snaffles them in with ease. The Ugandan captain scored an impressive 11/12 for the quarter.
Koenen’s received the majority of Lightning centre passes (5) for the quarter, which freed Scherian for the second and third phase play.
The Swifts took the sudden Lightning onslaught in their stride and steadied themselves. They remained calm and composed and worked hard to play their own game. The midcourt of Rore, Hadley and Haythornthwaite combined perfectly, playing towards the ball, opening up space, while steadily and cleanly bringing the ball down into their goal third and offering reliable and consistent support around the circle edge.
In the Lightning goal, a scorching intercept was taken by Klau as Koenen misread the movement of Proscovia under the post. The ball was quickly moved down the court towards the Swift end with long, strong passing through the mid-court and into the circle before Maweni upset the Swifts momentum with a deflection away from Housby and into the safe hands of wing defence Maddie McAuliffe.
Flashes of brilliance from Lightning goal defence Karla Pretorius threatened to derail the Swifts drive with a classic intercept and four deflections for the quarter to keep the Swifts alert. Although Haythornthwaite toiled continuously, McAuliffe worked hard to restrict her, gaining three defections for the quarter.
Sophie Garbin took to the court with a burst of energy and enthusiasm, replacing Housby in goal attack. An uncharacteristic miss by Wallace, saw a rebounding Garbin and Pretorius hit the deck hard, both playing with a never-say-die attitude. Swifts were on a roll. They were assertive in offence and smothering in defence. The glaring difference between the two teams was the ability of the Swifts to capitalise when they received the ball, shooting 15/17 for the quarter.
Going into the half-time break, Swifts extended their lead 31-23.
If anything can be learnt from the 2019 SSN season, it is that the game is not over until the final siren sounds. For so many weeks, we have seen the Lightning come back from a seemingly unwinnable position at half time to turn the game around and take out the win. This thought must have been in the back of the minds of the Swifts.
With Wood back in at goal attack late in the third quarter, we quickly saw a flash of her brilliance as she teamed with the dynamic Scherian with dizzying feeds, in and out of the goal circle to steadily inch her way closer to the post. Wood’s day was not getting any better however when she failed to capitalise on the hard-earned attempt. Unfortunately, Wood’s first successful goal of the term did not eventuate until four minutes in. However, she continued on to shoot a much improved 6/7 goals for the quarter, it was a late comeback for the champion goal attack.
Centre and Lightning captain Laura Langman was a work horse. Although restricted by Hadley, who applied defensive pressure on the champion centre all game, Langman managed to work well with Wood with quick feeds and sneaky drop passes, as well as strong and hard cross circle passes to Scherian around the edge. Langman produced 39 feeds and 16 goal assists for the game. But, as formidable as as she is, even she could not pull any tricks out of her bag to stop the Swifts juggernaut.
Although securing twelve contacts for the game, Klau more than made up for it with five intercepts and five rebounds. Speaking after the game, Swifts coach Briony Akle believed it was “probably the best game I’ve seen her play in her life, and it was a great game to do it.” Applying unyielding defensive-pressure the entire game, the Australian Diamond played an absolute career-defining game in her first grand-final.
Garbin supported Wallace well in the Swifts goal, allowing Wallace to weave her magic, shooting an incredible 12/12 for the quarter. An attempt at goal by Garbin, saw a well-timed deflection by Pretorius as the shot left Garbin’s hand. A refreshed Housby returned shortly after, with her usual style of play, moving through the circle, and out and about the goal third. Along with the added assistance from Hadley and Haythornthwaite, Housby shot 3/4, with four feeds and four goal assists for her shortened quarter.
A sublime intercept by Maweni away from Wallace, roused the shell-shocked Lightning supporters from their daze. Maweni worked tirelessly against the in-form Wallace with two intercepts for the game, but it was not enough to slow down the Swifts assault. The Swifts pulled further away from the Lightning 46-36.
As the final quarter began, the parochial Swifts supporters were going bananas! Most having travelled from interstate, they could detect the sweet taste of victory. But the glory wasn’t theirs to savour just yet.
The Swifts carried on where they left off at the break. Systemically, they plied away at decimating the faded Lightning. Putting up a fight until the dying moments, the Lightning were just no match for the passionate Swifts. Applying tight one-on-one defence, the Lightning forced the Swifts to pass back away from their goal third to try and expose space in their circle. But, powerful cross-court passing by Haythornthwaite in the goal third, opened up gaps for the Swifts allowing the ball into the circle. As the NSW supporters yelled louder, Swifts captain Hadley, did well to steady her players as they continued playing to plan, applying tight defence and confident attack.
Wallace continued to dominate, moving to the top edge of the circle, and calling for the ball back under the post. Maweni worked hard at deflecting an incoming pass to Wallace, but Wallace’s tall physique and long reach were no match for the goal keeper, who often found herself left behind, too late to defend the pass.
Dominating the scoring, the Swifts finally allowed themselves to realise that victory would soon be theirs. Overpowering the Lightning even further with an incredible 18-11 in the final quarter, the Swifts took the game and the 2019 championship title with a resounding 64-47 thumping of the minor premiers.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Swifts whole-heartedly deserved their win. They were the best team on the day, and they showed why they spent most of the 2019 season on the top of the ladder. Thwarted by injury following a long pre-season and the world cup, they have worked incredibly hard to become championship winners.
It was not the fairy-tale ending the Lightning team had hoped for their outgoing coach, Noeline Taurua, but after a player re-shuffle at the end of 2018, they have done well to end the season on top of the ladder. But in the words of Laura Langman, “it was a terrible day to have a terrible day.”
Sydney Swifts 64 def Sunshine Coast Lightning 47
(16-12, 15-11, 15-13,18-11)
Player of the Match: Sam Wallace (NSW Swifts)
Crowd: 7760 at Brisbane Entertainment Centre
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Peace Proscovia 16/18 – 88.9%
Cara Koenen 23/27 – 85.2 %
Steph Wood 8/14 – 57.1%
47/59 – 79.7%
Sam Wallace 40/44 -90.9%
Sophie Garbin 6/7 – 85.7%
Helen Housby 18/22 – 81.8%
Sarah Klau (NSW Swifts) 5
Karla Pretorius (Sunshine Coast Lightning) 3
Natalie Haythornthwaite (NSW Swifts) 21
Paige Hadley (NSW Swifts) 20
Natalie Haythornthwaite (NSW Swifts) 40
Laura Langman (Sunshine Coast Lightning) 39
Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Cara Koenen
GA Stephanie Wood
WA Laura Scherian
C Laura Langman
WD Maddie McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Phumza Maweni
Bench: Peace Proscovia, Jacqui Russell, Annika Lee-Jones
GS Peace Proscovia, GA Cara Koenen,
GA Steph Wood
GS Cara Koenen, WD Jacqui Russell
GK Annika Lee-Jones
GS Sam Wallace
GA Helen Housby
WA Natalie Haythornthwaite
C Paige Hadley
WD Katrina Rore
GD Maddy Turner
GK Sarah Klau
Bench: Sophie Garbin, Tayla Fraser, Sophie Halpin
GA Sophie Garbin
GA Helen Housby
WD Sophie Halpin, GS Sophie Garbin, WA Tayla Fraser
What they said
Noeline Taurua & Laura Langman
Lightning didn’t play well today, but the Swifts didn’t let you play well, did they?
Noeline: Absolutely. You’ve always got to give respect to the opposition, and I thought they were sublime right from the start. They pretty much kept the pressure on, and they played really well, and they deserved the win and we weren’t in the play right from the start.
There were some moments where it looked like you were going to get back in the game and you just couldn’t get there. They were ‘on’ for the whole four-quarters, weren’t they?
Noeline: Look it’s fantastic. Leading in to this game, there were gaps in them being able to play four quarters and that’s what we always say we’ve been able to do that. But, right from the start we were on the back foot, but there were moments when we sort of came back into it. We’ve spoken about opportunities and there were opportunities that presented, but we were unable to capitalise on it. So, as I say, they were good. You’ve got to give them credit.
As disappointing as the result is today, you must walk away feeling immensely proud of what you’ve achieved at this club to make three straight grand finals?
Noeline: Yes, I mean it’s ourselves against ourselves and it didn’t go our way and there were some people who were upset. But, I’m hugely proud of, not only our team, but the growth of players and also our club. So, we’ve come a long way for us to present ourselves again for premiership, which is no mean feat. I am actually quite alright about it. I thought I would be a bumbling mess. I feel quite strong about the club and I feel satisfied, to be honest. We didn’t come out with it today, but like always, people are going to learn and that’s what it’s all about.
You’ve kept a lot of the core group together for Kylie next year, what’s your opinion on how this club can go next year and how do you think Kylie will manage it in her first year?
Noeline: Ironically, it might be a blessing to be honest. We’re in the grand final and we weren’t able to do it this year, it still sets the tone, still sets the foundation of what could happen next year without the pressure. So, things happen for a reason and that might be what we need to do to present ourselves again for grand finalists for next year. We’ve got a really good core, a base of players, great routines, great club, and look at what we need to do to keep improving as we have for the first three years.
Laura, what was it like out there playing against the Swifts? They seemed pretty relentless, didn’t they? You weren’t able to play the ‘beautiful game’ the Lightning play.
Laura: They were sublime. I think when we turned the ball over, they punished us and then the lead just blew out. I do honestly think we had opportunities. It was tough going getting the ball down at the defence end, and I think we did at times, but we just weren’t able to get the conditions right down our attack end or through court to capitalise. It was tough out there, but I think there’s still a lot to celebrate for us.
Laura, now this is over, when will you decide on your future?
Laura: Are you ready?! Oh man! It’s been a massive year and I’ve loved every minute. I’m so lucky to have had a second chance. I’ve put my hand up for Constellation Cup, so I’m pumped about that. I think I’m going to enjoy the rest of today and no doubt Kylee (Byrne) will be calling me tomorrow, so it (an announcement) will be in the very near future.
Are you still loving your netball at the moment?
Laura: Absolutely! I agree with Paige (Hadley), that for every Suncorp game you have to bring your best. The internal competition, within our environment, there is no other and as an elite athlete playing at the Lightning makes you want to play forever, it really does. So, I’ve really enjoyed it and I feel very, very grateful for having this second life.
What are your thoughts on the legacy Noeline is going to leave at the Lightning?
Laura: I always run out of words, or don’t have the words to describe Noeline. It’s been absolutely wonderful. I don’t think we could’ve asked for a better foundation to be laid. What I love is, that she has set the level of expectation those at the Lightning, and those who will join the Lightning, that’s the bare minimum. I’m excited to see where the club goes in the future. This competition is so great and every year players are getting fitter, faster, stronger and the strategy that you need to be able to adapt week to week, it’s a massive challenge. We couldn’t’ve asked for a better foundation to lead our club into the future. So, go Lightning!
Noeline, what does the future hold for this League? We’ve seen the depth of the Lightning bench and the depth of the Swifts bench. Is it ready for expansion any time soon?
Noeline: I understand it’s still in its current form for five years. That’s without knowing what the actual details are. So, in five years-time, it will be a great period to then review and see what needs to happen, where are the gaps, and also maintain that level of intensity and be the best competition in netball. In five years, you don’t want to move too soon, but I think five years is a good period of time. Honestly, there’s been a big call around internationals, but you can’t have one without the other and having quality players, like Laura (Langman), Karla (Pretorius) coming from other countries can only raise the standard. So, it will be interesting to see how it goes. It’s been an amazing competition to be part of and definitely the profile has lifted.
Now it’s time to move on, is there any memory that sticks in your mind?
Noeline: Um, I think for me, the first year was amazing. Knowing where we came from and not having much to start off with. Not that we were on the back foot, but we were pretty much living everyday and learning everyday and so, I suppose the challenges that went with every day was huge and people didn’t see that. And so that first premiership was sublime, because there was a lot of people involved with that and establishing the club. I think every year has bought something different, and I know we haven’t won today, but we’re still very proud of that. As we’ve mentioned, not that many teams, clubs, players can be a part of it. So, for us to be here again for the third straight year is not too bad considering where we’ve come from. I think along that way, the growth of certain players, like Cara (Koenen), has come along. Today is her first grand-final. Ironically, I feel we’ve laid the foundation, these two Kiwis here (Langman and Taurua) have laid the foundation stone for future Diamonds. I think that’s ironic, but I really believe that. Some of those players out there are amazing and what we’ve been able to do is to raise the bar or contribute to it overall to netball in Australia. So, it hasn’t just been one way where I’ve been taking, taking, taking. I think it’s been reciprocal, and we’ve added to the fullness of SSN and the competition.
Paige Hadley, Briony Akle & Maddy Proud
The Swifts produced one of their best performances of the year on the day that mattered. You must be very proud?
Briony: Very proud, it’s just amazing! What we’ve been through all year, and to just get to this point is amazing, let’s celebrate it, enjoy it, and the guys did that. They went out there and looked at the crowd and soaked it all in and finally we followed the game plan for the old cliché of sixty minutes. But, we did it. So, very, very proud.
Paige, how does it feel walking out of here with the trophy after the 2015 and 2016 losses.
Paige: It feels amazing! No words. I think the heartbreak of 2015 and 2016 was with me the last few seasons, but I knew this team was building towards something special and it produced today. It feels pretty awesome that it’s coming back with us for the next year.
Paige, there was a level of ruthlessness from the Swifts from the whole four quarters?
Paige: Yes, especially for me, I think, it was all about enjoying the moment and in the semi-final the nerves got the better of me, so this whole week I’ve just enjoyed every moment because it’s so hard to get to a grand final and I thought everyone stood up. I thought our defenders were ruthless down in the defence end and Sammy Wallace under the post couldn’t go wrong. So, I think we normally have a bad game at the same time, but I think everyone had a good game at the same time. So, it was positive today that it happened in the grand-final.
Briony, you seemed to have an answer for everything the Lightning threw at you today, like you really looked at their game plan. Was playing them three times before this, was it today that you really knew how to get them?
Briony: I think, we actually really focused on where their connections were and where we could shut them down and I think we did that really early on. They’re a champion team and even though we were ten goals up, I never thought we had it won. So, I’d think at every timeout, “we haven’t done this yet, we haven’t got this yet”, so I think for us, we worked really hard during the week. We watched loads of video and made sure we transferred that to the court and repeatedly did that over and over again. And I think that’s testament to these guys putting it in to action.
Paige, it sounded like you had half of NSW in the crowd today. How important has it been to have so many of your supporters here today?
Paige: Our supporters have been awesome all year. They’ve turned out for every home game, and even before the game started, they cheered every single one of us out. So, I think it was a testament to the support we’ve had this year. It was huge for us and they were just as loud as the Lightning fans. I had 22 people here with me, so for once they’re not consoling me, but celebrating with me. So, yes it was awesome that they came out and were so loud and they’re still out there waiting for us to celebrate. That just goes to show that it means just as much to them as well.
Briony how much improvement is in the team, considering Maddy (Proud) is due back next year?
Briony: I think the self-belief moving forward will be… I don’t know where we go from here. I want to win this over and over again and the Swifts have a fantastic legacy, and I think for us it’s looking forward, and celebrating this and it obviously starts again in November. So, the legacy of the Swifts is great and hopefully we can keep this team together and get a few more of these trophies.
What does it mean to the club? It’s been a long time between drinks in terms of titles. You always have been, but certainly now, one of the most successful clubs.
Maddy: I think we’ve been building for this for a few years now and we’ve obviously had the ingredients for a few years and today was the day we put it all together and not coming from the Swifts environment, the Swifts has always been a team that you looked up to, you feared playing the Swifts from as long as I’ve been playing, which is a little while now. So, to be able to recreate that with this new group is very exciting. As Briony said, we hope this is just the beginning, but we’re going to enjoy this one for a while, I think.
Briony, what do you think is the legacy Noeline (Taurua) leaves?
Briony: I’m in awe of her. I think she is fantastic. And, even just pre-match we did a corporate gig together, and I thought there are not many coaches I would rather be up here with an hour before the whistle blows. That is one sort of person I looked at, I admire her, she’s done great things for netball in general, not just here, but winning the world championship, and she produces great people and teams. We obviously look to her and say thank you for the contribution she’s given us at SSN, and we wish her all the best.
Briony, your thoughts on the MVP Sam Wallace?
Briony: She came to play today. Even in the change rooms before the game, I thought she’s going to be good. She was so calm and casual and to go out and play like she did against the world’s best defenders I think is a fantastic credit to her and these guys out the front delivered the ball beautifully to her today and that was something, Paige would admit, we did really well in the semi-final and to have Nat (Haythornthwaite) and Paige out in front to deliver the ball to her, she grew in confidence as that game went on.
What about Sarah? She must’ve been runner-up for MVP?
Briony: She was amazing. I just got told she had 11 possession gains, so fantastic game for her. Probably the best game I’ve seen her play in her life. Great game to do it at. If she watches this game back and criticizes herself, I’ll probably kill her! But, she’s very self-critical and so to have this game under her belt and walk away happy is the biggest thing that we can ask for with Sarah. Full credit to Maddy Turner who has worked with Sarah for a long time, and just their connection has allowed Sarah to play world’s best. So, I think if we can keep them together and I just think she’s (Sarah) has changed her game up here (points to head) and it’s a mind space for her. I think she played the world championships this year and that’s her first step, so very excited to see what she can produce in her career.
Do you see the partnership between Turner and Klau a potential Diamonds partnership?
Briony: Oh, absolutely! Australian talent, they’re proven and it’s not their first gig. Hopefully they can keep working together and keep building and get that next combination for Australia.
Do you have any ideas on who might be named in the Constellation Cup?
Briony: Oh, the whole Swifts team! We’ve got some great talent there, with Sophie Garbin up there, and these two (Hadley and Proud) sitting here. Maddy (Proud) was doing a great job in the first half of this competition (before her injury), so watch out, hopefully they’ll get a good look in.
Maddy, what does it mean to you out on the side-line injured? How do you feel?
Maddy: I think when they put out a performance like they did today, it was quite easy to watch from the sidelines in a way. It meant I wasn’t needed out there for a while. I think, what we said it has been one of those years where we’ve had 15 players coming in and out at any given time and we knew from the get-go this was going to be a special year and how we got there was probably a bit more of a winding road than we thought it would be, but we’ve talked about how this would make a very good movie, the Swifts journey this year. Obviously, hard to watch. Nobody likes watching from the sidelines, but again the way they played today was just incredible and made me very, very proud and even more eager to get back out there next year.
You’ve taken on more of a coaching role to a certain extent?
Maddy: I’ve said I’d like to use the term ‘coaching’ lightly because it is a bit of a derogatory term, with Briony sitting here next to me. I like to say I’m still doing the captain’s role from the sideline. I throw in my two cents and give Paige a few thumbs up throughout the game and I’m hoping it helps her out a little. But we said as soon as the injury happened that I wanted to be involved as much as I could and obviously that was from the sidelines. With Nat (Haythornthwaite), and helping her out, coming into that wing attack position and I think she was incredible today and all year. So, I just tried to do my job when I could, but it makes it pretty easy on days like today.
How is the recovery coming along?
Maddy: Very good. I even ran out into the huddle. I nearly jumped on top of everyone. It’s now 12 weeks out and I’ve started running and everything’s on track, so, so far- so good. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to that again next year.