In Part 2 of Netball Scoop’s Suncorp Super Netball 2021 preview, we run the umpire’s whistle over the four teams who made the finals last year. Check out the Melbourne Vixens, West Coast Fever, Sunshine Coast Lightning and NSW Swifts ins, outs, strengths, weaknesses and what fans can expect from them this year.
By Jane Edwards
Coach: Simone McKinnis
Team: Kate Moloney (Captain), Emily Mannix, Jo Weston, Kadie-Ann Dehaney, Mwai Kumwenda, Kate Eddy, Kaylia Stanton, Allie Smith, Ruby Barkmeyer.
In: Allie Smith (elevated from training partner), Kaylia Stanton, (West Coast Fever), Ruby Barkmeyer (elevated from training partner).
Out: Liz Watson (Captain) (injured), Caitlin Thwaites (retired), Tegan Philip (retired), Tayla Honey (Vixens training partner).
Finish in 2020: Premiers
Advantage: The Vixens line up this season can be split neatly across the middle of the court in terms of experience and stability. The defence end remains formidable, with Mannix, Weston, Dehaney and Eddy available for rolling substitutions to combat holding shooters and moving circles. Transition to attack is firmly linked through the reliable of leadership of Moloney at Centre. Coach Simone McKinnis has been forced to replace three players in the attacking half, with the retirements of Thwaites and Philip and the injury to co-captain Watson.
However, the Vixens dedication to squad building means that two of their new team members can be elevated to key positions from the training squad. Allie Smith has already proved her value at WD in the 2020 semi-final, and Ruby Barkmeyer was part of the Victorian Fury premiership team in 2019 before joining the Vixens training squad. The recruitment of experienced shooter Kaylia Stanton from West Coast Fever balances Barkmeyer’s relative youth, and Stanton’s proven adaptability at GA or GS gives assistant coach Sharelle McMahon a project akin to Thwaites’ renaissance as GA in the Vixens’ successful 2020 premiership campaign.
Obstruction: Slotting two new players into the Vixens’ shooting circle was always going to present a coaching challenge, but the loss of Watson’s ability at WA to create space and vary speed in attack was an unexpected complication. To date, the Vixens have not announced a permanent replacement for Watson, choosing instead to trial squad members Tayla Honey and Hannah Mundy in pre-season competition against the Adelaide Thunderbirds.
The pressure will be on Kumwenda, returning only last season from ACL injury, to bear the scoring burden for the team; although it is hard to imagine that McKinnis and McMahon will not try to replicate the rolling, moving shooting circle strategy that worked so brilliantly for the Vixens last season in balancing the workload between three shooters. Stanton has a fabulous opportunity to reinvent herself after seven seasons with the Fever, where she was relegated to second-starter behind Jhaniele Fowler at GS and Alice Teague-Neeld at GA.
The Vixens’ pre-season has been somewhat disrupted by injury, with Emily Mannix recovering from hip surgery and Jo Weston suffering a calf injury in the Constellation Cup. The starting team is overloaded with defence specialists: Mannix, Dehaney, Weston, Eddy and Smith each call the three defence bibs home, while Watson was the only specialist WA.
Play on: The Vixens travelled to Ballarat for two practice matches against the Adelaide Thunderbirds, winning the first by one goal, and comprehensively losing the second. However, with Mannix and Weston not available for either game, McKinnis took the opportunity to give the training squad members court time, and to try several speculative combinations. This included Moloney at WA with Honey at C, which would provide the team with the strong physical presence that the Vixens have come to rely on Watson for in the key feeding position.
Interestingly, Kadie-Ann Dehaney’s player profile lists her as “GK, GS”, so look out for her to stand up under the goal post as a wild-card shooting option.
The final score: It is going to take some time to rebuild a dominating attack structure for this team, so making the final four by the end of the season will be a challenge worthy of McKinnis’ expertise.
SUNSHINE COAST LIGHTNING
By Lou Patton
Coach: Kylee Byrne
Team: Mahalia Cassidy, Maddie Hinchliffe, Cara Koenen, Maddy McAuliffe, Karla Pretorius, Peace Proscovia, Phumza Maweni, Laura Scherian, Kate Shimmin, Steph Wood
In: Mahalia Cassidy (from Sunshine Coast Lightning), Kate Shimmin (Adelaide Thunderbirds),Ashlee Unie (but now ruled out with ACL injury), Maddie Hinchliffe.
Out: Ashlee Unie (ACL in preseason game), Laura Langman (retirement), Annika Lee-Jones (VNSL), Jacqui Russell (retirement)
Finish in 2020: 2nd after regular season, 3rd after finals.
The Sunshine Coast Lightning have minimal changes to their roster, and given that they finished second on the ladder after the regular season, but crashed out of the finals in straight sets, it’s hard to know if this is a good thing or not. Will their time together benefit them, or is their playing list in need of a freshen up?
Most of the team are highly familiar with each other’s game – in particular the attacking line of Cara Koenen, Steph Wood, Peace Proscovia and Laura Scherian. Their ball placement in the shooting circle is superb, finding gaps that few others can spot. Cara Koenen’s emergence as the Australian Diamonds’ preferred GS during the recent Constellation Cup can only increase her self-confidence and the confidence of her teammates.
Phumza Maweni and Karla Pretorius are not only Lightning’s preferred defensive duo, but they ply their trade together too for South Africa. Maweni emerged last season with much greater confidence, given her regular court time, while Pretorius is still perhaps the most lethal goal defence in the game. The addition of Kate Shimmin to the defensive line will give them greater flexibility when there is a need to change up their game.
Maddy McAuliffe was primarily used at wing defence last year, but in pre-season games has shown herself to be a genuine alternative at centre. However, Mahalia Cassidy has slotted in to perfection, and will be looking to maintain the consistency she had last season.
Vicki Wilson joining the coaching ranks will add a new dimension to the attack end.
Langman, or lack thereof. How do you replace the world’s best C/WD? You can’t – although Lightning have gained an experienced, quality replacement in Mahalia Cassidy from Queensland Firebirds. However, Langman was more than one of the best defensive centres in the game – her leadership ability was extraordinary. Someone will need to step up to fill this gaping void.
The pre-season loss of rookie Ashlee Unie with a torn ACL was difficult, after she’d received her first regular contract with the team. She will be replaced by Maddie Hinchliffe.
Lightning have occupied a place in the top echelon of the competition since their inception. They were grand-finalists for three consecutive years from 2017-2019 and back-to-back winners in 2017-18. Last year saw a slide in their dominance, crashing out of the finals in straight sets with heavy losses against eventual grand-finalists Melbourne Vixens and West Coast Fever.
Several factors suggest Lightning’s ‘championship window’ may be closing. Langman’s retirement is the most obvious loss; but questions also remain over Steph Wood’s injury status, the star goal attack hampered by injury niggles and inconsistency in recent years. With six players aged 29 or older, it remains to be seen whether the team can continue their great run injury-free.
On the upside, Kate Shimmin will be a welcome addition to the defensive end to provide variety to the formidable defensive combination of Karla Pretorius and Phumza Maweni. Mahalia Cassidy enjoyed a break-out year in 2020 with the Firebirds and will add much needed grunt to the midcourt. In addition to the major midcourt change, Vicki Wilson’s coaching should freshen up the attack line and hopefully revitalise Wood’s game and the shooting combinations between Peace Proscovia, Koenen and Wood.
The Final Score
Lightning should again make finals, but will need a great run with a fully fit team to challenge for the championship. West Coast Fever’s penalty for breaching the salary cap may play into Lightning’s hands – Fever was the only team to comprehensively beat Lightning every time they played in 2020. If Fever fail to make finals after starting with a 12-point penalty, this will help Lightning’s chances.
WEST COAST FEVER
By Jenny Sinclair
Coach: Stacey Marinkovich
Team: Courtney Bruce (Captain), Olivia Lewis, Stacey Francis, Sunday Aryang, Jess Anstiss, Verity Charles, Emma Cosh, Jhaniele Fowler, Alice Teague-Neeld, Sasha Glasgow
In: Sunday Aryang (elevated from training partner), Emma Cosh (elevated from training partner), Sasha Glasgow (from Adelaide Thunderbirds)
Out: Kaylia Stanton (Melbourne Vixens), Shannon Eagland (Fever – training partner), Ingrid Colyer (ACL Injury)
Finish in 2020: 3rd after the regular season, 2nd after finals.
Advantage: Some clever off-season recruitment leaves Fever stronger than the squad that’s contested two of the last three grand finals. Two of the three new signings – Sunday Aryang and Emma Cosh – had court time with Fever during 2020, and as former training partners are familiar with existing team structures. Aryang looks to have benefited from a summer in the gym, adding strength to her athleticism and uncanny ability to hunt the ball. Emma Cosh, more traditionally a goal attack, will mainly be used at wing attack this season, providing a steadying influence to the speedsters around her. Sasha Glasgow rounds out the group of signings – the underutilised ex-Thunderbird can run at both shooting positions, is a strong rebounder and will beef up the Fever’s ability to shoot from two point range when needed.
Fever have an incredibly strong defensive line, with Courtney Bruce in exceptional form in her pre-season appearances. Aryang and Stacey Francis play very different styles of netball – the former sitting off the body, while Francis prefers a close checking style. Both combine well with Bruce or Olivia Lewis, offering a variety of defensive options to custom-match opponents.While most teams use a 3/4/3 mix in the shooting circle, midcourt and defensive lines, Fever have opted for a 3/3/4 split. The team might appear to be defensively heavy, circle defenders Francis and Aryang can swing out to wing defence, shuffling midcourters Jess Anstiss and Verity Charles further forwards on court to offer a point of difference in attack.
A combination with several years under their belt, Anstiss and Charles provide speed and drive through the midcourt, while Alice Teague-Neeld’s attacking nous stamps her as the most valuable playmaker on court. Jhaniele Fowler will continue to anchor the circle – her strength, elevation and athletic ability have seen her outscore every other goal shooter in the league.
It’s a highly versatile group that, Jhaniele Fowler aside, all play at least two positions, giving coach Stacey Marinkovich plenty of options all over court.
Obstruction: There are several factors that could hurt Fever in 2021. First is the propensity of the state government to slam the Western Australian border shut whenever Covid rears it’s head over east. Already facing a heavy travel burden, Fever could potentially have to set up a hub away from home, increasing their time on the road.
Most difficult however is the impact of their 2018/19 salary cap breach, with Fever losing 12 premiership points before the season even starts. It leaves little wiggle room, and if they are to make the finals this year, Fever can only afford to lose two to three games at most, and even then, a home final will most likely be out of question. If the team do lose a match early, it will place enormous psychological pressure on the group going forwards.
Keeping bookends Courtney Bruce and Fowler injury free will also be a priority. Both athletes are a barometer of Fever’s success, and Bruce in particular has missed games over recent seasons with niggling back and arm injuries.
Fever struggled with the two point shot last year – both implementing it successfully, and stopping other teams going to the post. It’s an area they will seriously need to improve on to put wins on the scoreboard.
Play on: Other than Glasgow, Fever’s athletes have trained together for several years. They are not only familiar with the team’s game plan, but have shared the heartache of two grand final defeats, and will be keen to up the ante this year.
Their close checking defensive end has added a stronger offline defence to their toolkit – it was successfully used during their pre-season hit out against the All Stars allowing goal keeper Olivia Lewis to come up with a clutch of intercepts.
The attacking unit will always look to Fowler’s imposing presence under the post, combining the court craft of Alice Teague-Neeld with speed of ball placement into the circle.
The final score: If Fever can put a few early wins on the scorecard, momentum will make them hard to stop. While they will need some luck and an injury-free run to overcome their 12 point penalty, it would be a brave person to bet against them making finals again in 2021.
By Kate Cornish
Coach: Briony Akle
Team: Maddy Proud (capt), Paige Hadley, Tayla Fraser, Sam Wallace, Sophie Garbin, Helen Housby, Nat Haythornthwaite, Sarah Klau, Maddy Turner, Lauren Moore
In: Tayla Fraser (elevated from training partner)
Out: Sophie Halpin, Kayla Cullen
Finish in 2020: 4th
Advantage: Over the past 4 seasons, the advantage the Swifts have enjoyed over other teams is their ability to keep their core playing group together. When Suncorp Super Netball came into being in 2017, their star-studded line-up was decimated and they were left with a very young and inexperienced team who had to fight tooth and nail to be seen as a threat in the competition. After two disappointing seasons, the playing group decided they did not want to be seen as young and inexperienced anymore and they set out to win the 2019 premiership in bold fashion. Despite multiple injuries to key members of their team, they were unstoppable on their way to victory. Galvanised by all the hurdles they had to overcome, they developed into a very tight-knit playing group.
With internationals and interstate players making up a large portion of their squad, the players refer to their team mates as ‘family’ and have developed a special bond that translates well for them on court. This, combined with being led by one of the best coaches in the competition, Briony Akle, the Swifts tick all the boxes of a team that should, on paper, be a premiership threat in 2021.
The Swifts hail internationally capped players at both ends of their court and through the middle; they have Diamonds players in Sarah Klau and Paige Hadley and both Maddy Proud and Maddy Turner have experienced the Diamonds camp; Helen Housby is a starter for the English roses and Nat Haythornthwaite has impressed over the past few years on the international stage as well, and the go-to shooter for the Swifts, Sam Wallace, is also the star for the Trinidad and Tobago team. Anything less than a top four appearance would be a huge disappointment with that roster.
Obstruction: With no new signings to their roster in 2021 Swifts will take the court with confidence in their combinations, but may also some degree of predictability, and they will need to present something new in 2021. Last season saw the return of their captain Maddy Proud from an ACL injury suffered in round seven of 2020 and while Proud is a huge asset to the team, they struggled to find the right recipe on court for a whole 60 minutes. Their attack end almost had too many options and the combination of Paige Hadley and Nat Haythornthwaite that had solidified over 2020, at times, left Proud on the bench. However, with another preseason under their belts, we should not expect that be an issue this season.
The Swifts have also elected not to re-sign impact defensive player Sophie Halpin who had performed well for them when called upon over the past couple of seasons. Coming from the bench Halpin had the extra grit that the Swifts seemed to need, but in 2021 they have opted for another addition to their attacking end with pocket-rocket Tayla Fraser. Fraser brings flair and incredible speed to the court and will offer a nice change up in the centre and wing attack positions for Akle.
Swifts missed the services of Katrina Rore, part of their premiership winning team, last year, and wing defence could potentially be an area of weakness in 2021.
Play on: Finishing fourth in season 2020, despite all of it challenges, will not have sat well with the Swifts. They never found top-gear and had trouble with their consistency over 60 minutes. Trying to recapture the form, focus and determination they had in their premiership winning season will be key to their success in 2021. However, they should not look to recreate that moment, but instead look to build on the strengths that won them the premiership in the first place.
With some pre-season games under their belt and decisive wins over Sunshine Coast Lightning and the reigning premiers the Melbourne Vixens, the Swifts should be full of confidence when their season starts on May 1 against the Queensland Firebirds.
The final score: The NSW Swifts will finish in the top four and are definitely contenders for the premiership if they can hold their nerve long enough to believe 2019 was not a fluke.