The Vixens came into this game as hot favourites. Sporting an almost unchanged line-up and a host of Australian Diamonds’ stars, many pundits are expecting the Vixens to take out the whole competition. The addition of one of the most consistent shooters in the competition in Caitlin Thwaites, to replace the injured Mwai Kumwenda, is a frightening prospect. The Firebirds were expected to struggle defensively after the retirement of superstar Laura Geitz, but also boast a mostly unchanged lineup.
The Firebirds defenders immediately proved that concerns about their defensive line were unfounded. Kim Jenner was outstanding in the opening parts of the game, forcing the experienced Vixens feeders into a raft of errors. Tara Hinchliffe, despite the height differential, proved a handful for Thwaites and prevented her from hitting the post until five minutes into the first quarter.
The usually impeccable timing in the midcourt for the Vixens was all out of whack and the second phase ball was not going to plan. Liz Watson and Kate Moloney were not able to find space on the circle edge, making their feeds messy and off-target. The efforts of Mahalia Cassidy and Gabi Simpson deserve special mention against one of the most dynamic midcourts in the competition. The centre pass for the Vixens was excruciatingly close to three seconds on a number of occasions and Watson was leading too early. Turnovers coming from misplaced and mistimed feeds saw the Firebirds extend the lead to 8-1 four minutes into the first quarter.
The defence end for the Vixens was also struggling against the tallest shooting combination in the competition. Romelda Aiken was timing her move off Emily Mannix’s hold well, drawing her out to the edge of the circle and then swerving towards goal at the last second. Tippett was key in attack for the Firebirds in the opening quarter, taking the bulk of centre passes and backing this up with pinpoint feeding into Aiken. Yet, Weston and Mannix started the lift in intensity with a couple of impressive gains.
A timeout saw the Vixens gain some momentum back. Thwaites began to come into the game more, using her timing to defeat Tara Hinchliffe’s hold and make space for herself. Philip still appeared to be struggling with the attention she was getting from Jenner. However, both shooters kept the Vixens in it with perfect shooting and after scoring four of the last five goals of the quarter, they went into the first break trailing by just four goals.
It was back to basics for the Vixens in the second quarter and they began to show signs of the steady, impeccable netball that has seen them hailed as favourites in the competition. Simone McKinnis resisted the urge to change up the lineup, perhaps a wise decision given that the Vixens were well and truly back in the game by the end of the first quarter. Watson came into her own against Simpson and continued to pile on the feeds and goal assists. The ball into Thwaites was also coming more easily.
The Firebirds began to waver partway through the second quarter and their defensive efforts dropped off. Weston and Mannix stepped up intensity and balls that had been sailing into Tippett before were picked up by Weston, while Mannix held the back space on Aiken. Mannix began to inch closer to the high balls into Aiken and was able to get tips to some. This left Aiken under immense pressure to shoot within the three seconds and wearing the pressure of Mannix breathing down her neck.
Caitlyn Nevins was having a difficult time finding the ball on attack, with the work of Renae Ingles holding her off the edge of the circle and forcing her into some ill-placed feeds. The Vixens drew within two goals and the Firebirds quickly called a timeout. The timeout did not work out as planned and the Vixens went into the lead for the first time just before halftime. The Firebirds, after an explosive start, looking to be tiring with Hinchliffe in particular giving Thwaites a lot more space to work her trademark baseline dodges. Despite this, the Firebirds clung on to go into halftime on even footing with the Vixens.
Roselee Jencke changed it up in defence to start the third quarter, moving Laura Clemesha into goal keeper to replace Hinchliffe. Clemesha gives away far less height to Thwaites, but was unable to capitalise on this, being penalised almost every time the ball came into the circle and was unable to adjust to the umpiring.
Thwaites was looking more than at home in the Vixens circle by this point and went on a mini run shooting five goals to the Firebirds’ one. Clemesha was soon relegated to the bench and Hinchliffe re-entered the game. Jemma Mi Mi, an exciting midcourt prospect and the only Indigenous player in the league, also replaced Cassidy at centre. Mi Mi immediately impressed with lightning quick feeds into the circle and with more court time, could well be a star of the future.
Despite the continued efforts of Jenner, Philip was able to find a lot more space in and around the circle in the last quarter and this may well have been due to the ascendance of Thwaites. Philip, who by this point had been on the receiving end of a number of directives from McKinnis on the sideline, started to move her feet more quickly and was able to get around Jenner’s strong defensive work. The Vixens went into the final break up by seven goals.
The Vixens only put their foot on the accelerator in the last quarter and started to well and truly run away with the game. Thwaites was having a field day, ending her first game for the Vixens on an impressive 50 goals. The Firebirds by this point looked tired (with the exception of Mi Mi) and were getting frustrated. Aiken was benched partway through the last quarter and replaced with Amy Sommerville. Jencke also brought Cassidy back on and moved Mi Mi up to wing attack. The changes did not have the intended effect as the Vixens made it clear that they are real contenders for the championship this year.
From here, the Vixens stay in Melbourne to play the Giants next week. The Firebirds head back to Brisbane to take on the new-look Magpies side.
Melbourne Vixens 73 beat Queensland Firebirds 61
(15-19, 20-16. 20-13, 18-13)
Player of the Match: Emily Mannix
Thwaites 50/51 98%
Philip 23/24 96%
Sommerville 2/2 100%
Tippett 23/24 96%
(Aiken 36/42 86%)
Changes: Q3 GK Clemesha, GK Hinchliffe, C Mimi; Q4: GS Somerville, WA Mimi, C Cassidy
Watson (Vixens) – 37
Moloney (Vixens) – 25
Cassidy (Firebirds) – 18
Hinchliffe (Firebirds) – 3
Ingles (Vixens) – 3
Weston (Vixens) – 3
Simone McKinnis, Melbourne Vixens Coach
Five minutes in, what were you thinking?
I was thinking what is going on? We were probably a little slow to call a timeout, but definitely a slow start which we’ll have to work out.
Did you think the timing was a little off in the opening quarter particularly with the new shooting combination?
Yeah I think our game generally grew across the game. I think we built and grew across the game. It did take us a little time. It was our timing on court and our centre pass was a bit off, but I think we got better as we went along. And I think it was – you know – the Firebirds had some really good defensive pressure as well, so we were under pressure and I think we were just a little too slow to adapt.
On Caitlin Thwaites’ performance
Yes – it’s fantastic for her. I mean she’s worked as hard as anybody in this. She’s been fantastic as part of the team, so it’s a nice reward for her to be able to step out there and feel good about what she’s doing and shoot 50 goals. I mean, that’s not a bad first game is it, so she was great. Great work.
On Mannix’s performance against Aiken
It’s one of the toughest attacking combinations to defend against and I think we were actually quite slow defensively to begin with and then it took us – again – a little while to adjust and adapt to what was going on. Once we had better pressure out the front then we were starting to get some of the rewards behind. It was hard work. It was a hard game. I’m really happy with the way that we pushed and built across the game. That first quarter and that first five minutes when you’re down by quite a lot, just not having the panic and working out what we needed to do and just get on with it.
Was part of it also just rising to the physical challenge?
Yeah and that’s one of the things I think it took us awhile to adjust to as well. You’ve got to be strong onto the ball. You’ve got to take every ball really strong because particularly with Firebirds they can really go with you hard one-on-one so I think we learned something really valuable in terms of being able to put that commitment and that drive and that hunger and toughness on the table.
Twitter – @catrat07