Momentum is everything in netball, as the Queensland Firebirds found out when they made a last quarter surge which almost saw them secure their first win of the 2019 season over the Sunshine Coast Lightning. And, despite not quite making it over the line, Firebirds captain, and 100 national league veteran, Gabi Simpson, says that she can feel their first win coming.
It was a series of turnovers and a poor conversion rate in the first half which cost the Firebirds the game. During the first 30 minutes of play, the home side turned the ball over on 15 occasions which the Lightning capitalised on 40% of the time. By comparison, the Lightning coughed up ball 11 times in the first half, and only 29% of those were converted by the Firebirds.
The Lightning were onto the Firebirds tactics early in the match with defenders Phumza Maweni and Karla Pretorius having Gretel Tippett’s playbook memorised. Every high-release pass she tried to place into Lenize Potgieter was put under immense pressure and resulted in the Lightning’s first won ball of the game before 5 minutes of play.
The transition play by the Lightning was swift as they blitzed the middle corridor to easily find, player of the match, Cara Koenen. Wing attack Laura Scherian and Koenen showed what a few extra weeks of training had done to improve their game, with the pair easily finding each other for feeds and reoffers.
Koenen was also putting on a goaler’s master class, shooting at 100% until half way through the second quarter and out-rebounding the Firebirds young defensive line, who didn’t pick-up a rebound the entire match.
Speaking after the game, Lightning coach Noeline Taurua had high praise for Koenan. “I am really happy with her 37 goals. She has been chipping away for a few years now. But Kylee (Byrne, Lightning assistant coach) has said to me that she has gone up another notch while we have been away. I am really pleased that she was able to put the goals on there and keep the percentage up. She has done a lot in the gym. She is quite a slight person so there is still room for improvement in regards to power and strength, but overall I am really happy with what she is doing. I think she is definitely a diamond of the future.”
If any of the seven international athletes on the court were feeling fatigued from the Netball World Cup, they didn’t show it during the first quarter. Taurua, addressed concerns over the players’ possible depleted energy levels.
“I was actually talking to them every quarter to see how they were feeling. They weren’t feeling too crash hot if I’m being honest. But what they were doing was good enough. The legs weren’t actually that bad. The connections weren’t too bad. We just haven’t had enough time to reconnect ourselves in the defensive end, so it doesn’t surprise me. But overall, energy levels look good. We will look to manage that again this week. We will pull the load for the internationals definitely and by the end of next weekend, we should be alright.”
If anything, Firebirds centre, Erin Burger, looked the most tired of all the athletes on court. Her usually quick feeds were lacking and fell into Pretorius’ hands on a few occasions. She was also running on top of teammate Caitlyn Nevins and took her leads too early, subsequently clogging up the attack end. She was the costliest of the Firebirds in the first quarter with three turnovers.
However, these errors seemed to iron-out in the second quarter when Romelda Aiken entered the fray for the Firebirds. Having a more dominate target in attack gave the Firebirds renewed confidence as the ball was freely released into the circle.
In the Lighting attack end, Koenen was still dominating Firebirds goal keeper, Tara Hinchliffe. Firebirds coach, Roselee Jencke became more vocal and visibly livid with her defenders who were being caught in front position, giving Koenen ample back space to drop for the lob.
Steph Wood’s movements were also complimentary to Koenen, as she made the front cuts to draw the defence, or took the longer shots knowing that Koenen was there to get the rebounds.
The third quarter saw the wheels begin to fall off for the Lightning as a few changes were made to the Firebirds lineup. Laura Clemesha was introduced at goal keeper, and Jemma MiMi was brought on at wing attack.
Clemesha closed up the space Koenen was exploiting and managed to get her hands to a few deflections. Jenner was also playing a tighter game on Steph Wood. This closer attention saw doubt placed in the feeder’s minds and resulted in two consecutive held balls won for the Firebirds.
A flurry of brain fades from both sides saw patches of untidy play and squandered opportunities with neither side able to capitalise or pull away, leaving the third quarter scores locked on 16-a-piece.
Heading into the final term, Jencke’s instructions to her side, as divulged by Simpson after the match, were clear: “She pretty much said ‘nice girls aren’t going to win games.’ We needed to step out and show that mongrel. Our attack end is under constant physical pressure from start to finish and we need to provide the same in defence.”
Jencke also opted to bench Burger, in favour of her daughter, Macy Gardner. It was Gardner’ first taste of Suncorp Super Netball and she delivered well, picking up clean ball, and putting her body on the line for the team.
Her captain was delighted with Gardner’s debut. “Gosh, I am so proud of her. It is a nice story: her first, my hundredth. She played so well. I think her biggest strength was her fearlessness. She took some amazing drives and when she caught that ball, she just let it go into that circle. She backed the players in there. That is hard to do in your first game in the Firebirds dress. She is a competitor. She also would have loved that her first game was against the best in the world in Laura Langman. She embraced that. You could see it.”
The Firebirds, across the board, tidied up their play. Clemesha had a new opponent, in Ugandan captain, Peace Proscovia. Clemesha’s superior footwork and hustle won her the ball on a couple of occasions, with backup provided by Simpson and Gardner.
Simpson was confident in transition, often opting to launch the ball long to the goal third rather than play short and sharp. Her work in the defence end also provided extra cover for Jenner and Clemesha, as she shut down Scherian and blocked vision. While she didn’t take any of her usual intercepts, she still played a captain’s game, particularly in the last quarter where she notched three deflections and got two goal assists.
In the end, the Lightning looked to have run out of steam and coughed up on simple errors, yet Langman believes it was more that they were outplayed by the Firebirds. “I think we probably got hung-up in the battle a little bit and didn’t use our smarts or try to use our ball speed. I just think that the Firebirds had a fantastic second half. They were energised; they were letting the ball go and we just couldn’t turn it over. I am still happy that we got the job done but we have clear ‘work ons’ leading into next week.”
The Lightning did get the job done, walking away two-goal victors, despite losing the final quarter by five goals.
Next week the Lightning face the top of the table, New South Wales Swifts. Taurua is intrigued to see how the Swifts pull up next week. “It will be interesting to see how the Swifts run I suppose after playing in Perth then having to travel up and verse us. For the ones, like them, who have a had the internationals it will be interesting to see what they look like next week.”
For Simpson, she is hoping that her side will carry the momentum through to next week when they face Giants Netball at the AIS in Canberra. “How good is momentum though! Geeze Louise! That is the Firebirds way. No gap is too big and we showed we definitely believe we could do it in the end there.”
Sunshine Coast Lightning 66 defeated Queensland Firebirds 64
(18-13, 36-29, 52-45, 66-64)
MVP: Cara Koenen (Sunshine Coast Lightning)
GS Lenize Potgieter
GA Gretel Tippett
WA Caitlyn Nevins
C Erin Burger
WD Gabi Simpson
GD Kim Jenner
GK Tara Hinchliffe
Changes: Q2 Lenize Potgieter bench, Romelda Aiken GS
Q3 Tara Hinchliffe bench, Laura Clemesha GK, Jemma Mi Mi WA, Caitlyn Nevins bench
Q4 Erin Burger bench, Macy Gardner C
Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Cara Koenen
GA Steph Wood
WA Laura Scherian
C Laura Langman
WD Maddy McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Phumza Maweni
Changes: Q4 Cara Koenen bench, Peace Proscovia GS
Lenize Potgieter – 4/5 (80%)
Gretel Tippett – 30/31 (96.8%)
Romelda Aiken – 30/32 (93.8%)
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Cara Koenen – 37/40 (92.5%)
Steph Wood – 26/29 (89.7%)
Peace Proscovia – 3/3 (100%)
Laura Scherian (Lightning) 5
Erin Burger (Firebirds) 3
Laura Langman (Lightning) 2
Gabi Simpson (Firebirds) 2
Kim Jenner (Firebirds) 21
Phumza Maweni (Lightning) 20
Laura Clemesha (Firebirds) 15
Laura Langman (Lightning) 33
Erin Burger (Firebirds) 28
Laura Scherian (Lightning) 23