HABITS VERSUS HEROICS? What wins a pressure match?
Super Netball teams constantly reinforce their brand, their game plan, and sticking to their structures for the full sixty minutes. Over a disrupted, chaotic season, the players have had to respond and adhere to instructions, whilst tweaking small aspects both reactively to losses and proactively for the next opponent. But when is it the right moment to break off for an inspirational play and take the victory?
“Experience comes into play a lot”, said Giants coach Julie Fitzgerald. “We’ve had tight matches throughout year, we have more experience in critical moments, and we need to bring that this week.” Trust has been built in her squad over the last five years, with four original players still with Giants, and the athletes know when to seize an opportunity. Jamie-Lee Price suggested that those decisions are “just energy, and I put it down to momentum. Look at that Swifts game, there were so many momentum shifts. It’s about being brave when you see [an opening] and taking risks.”
For West Coast coach Stacey Marinkovich, it was vital that her players could react without direct instructions. “I think that all comes down to your preparation during the week. Your ability to understand what your opposition is capable of, and the variations they go to, we go through it out on court, but we also [study] the vision. The conversations we’ve had enable them to see and recognise [those moments]. Certainly, we try to get messages in from the side of the court.
“I think that’s the biggest growth that’s come with Fever this year, is their ability to communicate what’s happening, and then them all come together and execute at the same time, so someone takes the leadership out there, calls the switch in what we’re going to do, and because of their role clarity, they’re able to really connect and execute.”
As both proud clubs look to a grand final berth and to secure their first Suncorp Super Netball title, it will come down to who takes those little advantages, and who stays in the moment.
Round 5 in Perth
Fever 66 defeated GIANTS 65
After four wins on the trot, Giants were in first place, but their form was about to slump. The turnovers in their forward line were not repaying the defensive efforts of Price, Parmenter and Brandley. The absence of the latter might have been a weakness in this match, as the new mother was forced into a difficult choice due to border rules and stayed in Sydney.
However, the critical moment was when Harten had the ball right under the post to break a 65-all deadlock with 10 seconds to go. She froze, went to pass off, and was called for held ball. West Coast stole the victory with a classic lightning-fast transition to Fowler.
Round 14 in Sunshine Coast
GIANTS 75 defeated Fever 73
It was a different two teams in the final round match – both teams were playing better possession netball with short sharp passing, double and triple plays, especially Giants.
Remarkably, the total gains of both teams dropped from 27 in round five to only 14 in round fourteen, the second-lowest total of all games this season.
Going against their 2021 trend of slow starts, Fever leapt out with 25-19 in the first quarter. Charles was explosive and dominated Parmenter, but the Giants wing defence then figured the West Coast star out and marked her well for much of the remainder. Giants strode back into the picture with 2-3 goal runs at a time, and only 9 turnovers in the first 45 minutes.
As they had many times this season, Giants made a litany of errors in the final quarter, with 8 turnovers, and extra gains by Bruce. Fever were able to chip away and frustrate their opponents. It was the combination of a Giants lead of six goals, better centre-third defence, and some clutch supershots from Harten that got them over the line and brought them their second minor premiership.
The run into the preliminary final
Giants haven’t made the top four since 2018, when they were last minor premiers, but that year lost both their finals and finished third, a fate they are desperate to avoid repeating. In 2021 they had a sequence of very close matches to close the season, a win AND a loss against Swifts, the latter in the major semi-final, victory over Fever, and loss to Lightning, with no margin more than four. These tight showdowns have shown their mettle, and forced them to rely on shorter sharper attacking structures that reduce risk, and improved their experience under pressure. Their fading in final quarters is still a worry, winning only four of those in the whole season.
Another question is the injuries to two defensive options, McDonnell and Brandley. Even though they appeared to be mild ankle sprains and both players should be available and fit as ever, it makes it ambiguous as to who is the best combination to face Fever again – Brandley was out for both their fixtures this year but has been the preferred starting goal defence all year.
Fever had easier wins in the last few rounds, besting Magpies, Vixens, and Firebirds, until that 2-goal loss to Giants, and then knocking out Lightning from the finals race. Initially raging forward with seven wins to start the season, they learnt a lot from losses to Swifts and Lightning. In the minor semi-final Lightning were always a step behind, as West Coast showed their grit and adaptability, as well as their strong game plan with smart variations.
Alice Teague-Neeld in particular stepped up from her mid-season dip in form and provided solid structures and good defence at goal attack. Verity Charles too has shrugged off patchy form in the first half of the season to be sizzling at the end, setting a 2021 league record of 48 feeds last week.
Fever have rotated their bench on and off far more than Giants, while still remaining competitive. In the last six matches, all players have seen at least 40 minutes of court time including four appearances for Lewis at goal keeper, and three matches for Cosh at goal attack and wing attack.
Who has the upper hand?
You’d be brave to call this preliminary final. Each group has excellent coaching, plenty of time to analyse their opponent, the ability to restructure tactics on the fly, many experienced international players, passion, and fitness and resolve to run out four quarters and more.
Giants have in Sam Poolman a player that does visibly unsettle powerhouse Jhaniele Fowler. The physical goal keeper has only one gain against West Coast this year, but she has forced the Jamaican into 3.5 turnovers a game, and has tricks to confuse the Perth feeders. Just a few wins against Fowler will be a huge step forward for Giants. They also have Brandley back and she is likely to get fewer penalties and more gains than Manu’a did against Fever goal attacks this season.
Maddie Hay played most of the 2020 season learning the craft of wing attack – in 2021, she has been a revelation and has played literally every minute of every game except for four minutes in round two. For most of the year she has been the highest net points scorer in her position, employing a very different movement pattern to a traditional wing attack. Her tendency to glide around defence is deceptive, and her extra height makes her available in the pockets, and this suits Giants well as Jamie-Lee Price tends to hold off and then drive hard to top of the circle. In contrast, she almost never bodies up, and does not have the strong dodges typical of her position. Hay also has very astute and safe feeding. In recent weeks, teams have tried to nullify her by double-teaming her on second phase, or by bottling her towards Price in the same space in the middle channel. It looks like a success, but Giants still manage to reformat their attack and get the ball to shooters.
“I love Mads”, quipped Price, “she hasn’t tried to be the traditional wing attack, she’s gone about what her own strengths are and made it her own. She’s always willing to improve and take feedback, and her defensive pressure is important for us as well. She might be a new kid on the block from last year, but she’s now an experienced player and is quite versatile as well.
“It’s all about experience”, Price continued. “We’ve definitely experienced a lot of different situations this season and handed it pretty well. Last week [loss to Swifts] was a learning curve not just for the younger players but also the senior players, who haven’t played finals for a while, we were nervous as well. That game was perfect for us, it was a close game, we’ve discussed what can be done better and needs to change for this week.”
The Fever feeders have been on fire. Last week the Lightning were very good at swarming the centre pass and making Anstiss pass back to the defenders. The week before, Giants often let the West Coast goal attack out for a centre pass and then double-teamed the second phase. Both these aimed to strike Verity Charles out of the usual attack structures, and this did cut the speed in reaching Fowler. However, Fever did react and found new ways forward, and once the defence lapsed they could go back to their slick speedy plan A.
“Just do as we usually do” – the plan from Charles – “lots of movement, being decisive, letting the ball go, and backing the girls around me. We play our Fever way – we keeping stomping authority and pushing through, and as we said, we’re staying in the moment, we got a big game this weekend, we focus on that, we get the work done.” About achieving dominance over Lightning last week, she said, “It comes down to work rate. I think everyone just stepped it up. You find that adrenaline.”
Her partner Anstiss didn’t have such a great game against Price in round 14 – Price knows how to, in attack, keep up and then play off the body at the end of the move to get open in space, and she knows how to economically block the moves to balance the court. Anstiss bounced back in the minor semi-final and will be determined to upstage the Diamonds star in this rematch.
Courtney Bruce, Netball Scoop Most Valuable Player of 2021 Suncorp Super Netball Season, rarely has a bad game, but needs to stamp authority early. Jo Harten and Sophie Dwyer had it too easy for large parts of round 14, until Bruce got a few taps and intercepts in the last 20 minutes. Harten is a class player and has rallied in the last five matches to some truly magnificent form on the shot and in court craft, drastically reducing her turnovers. Harten’s weakness is that she rides on confidence and passion. Bruce, one of the best disrupters in the business, was playing too close to the post and too far off the driving shooter in their last encounter, such that feeds went to the backspace too easily. If she can fake forward and then drive back to interrupt that Giants feed, it will be a big step to victory. More passes wide or across the circle give them more chances to spoil possession. The win also depends on the right choice of goal defence – perhaps starting with Francis-Bayman who is tough in her one-on-one to exhaust Dwyer, then switching Aryang in who floats for intercepts, could be fruitful.
In the end, it might come down to not just a mental battle on the court, but the bigger picture. Fitzgerald recognised the huge support from fans during a difficult protracted Covid lockdown in her home state, as she backed a Giants v Swifts grand final. “It would be a wonderful thing for New South Wales, they’ve supported us all the way through this through very difficult circumstances, it would be a great thing to reward them.”
The opposition has something else to play for – a maiden title for the club but also a fitting farewell for their coach, Marinkovich – “For me, you want to win a premiership with the club, and we’ve got to obviously win this game to give ourselves that opportunity. It’s not about me – I know it’s my last year at the club, but it’s been a long-time build. With this playing group, the work they’ve put in, not only this season, but particularly last season, they’ve been together a long time, and they’ve really got a good connection on and off the court, so you’d love to see all their hard work come to fruition, and for them to play at their optimal performance. This group’s just so honest, to what we do well out on court, but also quick to see what we could improve on.
“Today, as we have done every week, we need to stay in the moment”.