By Ian Harkin and Rona Hunnisett
The UK’s Netball Super League (NSL) enters the 2023 season with one less team after the sad news of the folding of Wasps Netball.
The club had an incredibly successful six-year stint, making three grand finals and winning back-to-back titles (2017-18), but it was ultimately a financial decision, as Wasps Holdings, and with it Wasps Netball, were placed into administration, as athletes and coaching staff were made redundant.
This meant player-coach Cathrine Tuivaiti was left without a job, although several athletes have been given a lifeline as training partners at other NSL clubs, while some have been promoted into the main squads due to recent injuries.
Manchester Thunder are the defending champions after an stunning 2022 campaign, but there has been a real shake up in the off-season, with some big name signings giving fans of several teams great hope for the competition ahead.
Broadcast-wise, Sky Sports UK will have a dedicated Friday night time slot for league this season, plus there will be two further matches shown each round on Sky’s YouTube channel. Highlights of all games will be shown on the league’s YouTube channel.
Shadine van der Merwe
Coach: Karen Greig
2022 Placing: 1st
Ins and Outs: Manchester Thunder has a lot to live up to in 2023 as defending Super League champions, because it’s impossible for a team to do any more than they did in 2022. The end result was a perfect 22 wins from 22 matches, and several huge margins and broken scoring records along the way. However, the off-season has thrown up serious challenges.
Incredibly, of the players who took to the court in last season’s grand final, only two remain. Internationals Joyce Mvula, Eleanor Cardwell, Caroline O’Hanlon and Laura Malcom are among those not returning. However, coach Karen Greig assured supporters early on that they would still see a strong team lining up for the title defence.
South Africa spearhead Lenize Potgieter has been signed to fill the void at goal shooter. Among the other additions are shooter Amy Clinton, midcourters Taylor McKevitt and Iona Christian, while it’s a welcome return from injury for Amy Carter and Elia McCormick. Josie Huckle has also recently joined from the folded Wasps team. Add to this, the stability of Nat Metcalf, Kerry Almond, and Shadine van der Merwe, and while the squad may look quite different to 2022, it is no less competitive.
Key Player: Lenize Potgieter is an important signing. Having lost both Mvula and Cardwell, how Thunder performs in the shooting circle will go a long way to deciding the team’s fate. Potgieter appears to be happy and healthy again, and her form in the recent Quad Series suggests she is in for a big year on the end of a great attacking line up.
Prediction: A team that loses players of the calibre of Mvula, Cardwell, O’Hanlon and Malcolm could be set for a rocky campaign, but Thunder has recruited wisely, bringing in Potgieter, Clinton, and Christian, and welcoming back England international Amy Carter from injury to form a new-look side.
Whether the team can achieve back-to-back titles will likely hinge on the defensive partnership of Almond and van der Merwe. But with a well-balanced squad that can have an impact off the bench, and with a phenomenal work rate and discipline that coach Greig is famous for, expect the champions to be competing for silverware once more at season’s end.
The last time Thunder missed the playoffs was way back in the 2008/09 season, and barring something extraordinary happening, that successful run will continue in 2023.
Coach: Victoria Burgess
2022 placing: 2nd
Ins and Outs: Loughborough Lightning finished a gallant second in 2022 and head coach Victoria Burgess has managed to keep a relatively stable playing roster as she looks to go one better. The one major change to the squad came as a result of an incident early in the grand final where Ella Clark ruptured her ACL, and she will miss the season. Rhea Dixon has been recruited from Leeds Rhinos, and it will be either her or the highly promising Emma Thacker that combines with the dominant goal shooter, Mary Cholhok.
After a season at London Pulse, versatile defender Jas Odeogberin returns to the club. She played wing defence in the most recent pre-season match, but it’s to be hoped that Beth Cobden can fill that position for much of the season. The injury-plagued Cobden is one of the best wing defences in the world, but is currently in a period of recovery after yet another setback.
The rest of the team is made up of the same names who have been so successful in recent years, including Nat Panagarry and Hannah Joseph in the midcourt. The underrated Joseph topped the league for most feeds last year. In defence, Fran Williams and Alice Harvey are back to torment opposition shooters. The ever-improving Harvey now has the added confidence of England Roses selection and she looks set for another terrific season.
Key Player: Despite an injury-interrupted season in 2022 (missing six full games), Mary Cholhok still finished the year with 633 goals. There was a noticeable difference in Lightning’s attacking potency when she wasn’t there. It’s scary to think that Cholhok is improving every year and opposition teams can’t seem to find an answer to nullify her. If Lightning is to win, you can be sure that the Ugandan goal shooter will be a dominant factor.
Prediction: Lightning brings a largely unchanged squad to 2023. Its powerhouse midcourt combination of Joseph, Panagarry and Cobden has a ferocious work-rate that creates plenty of opportunities for sharpshooter Cholhok. New recruit Dixon brings a different, less aerial playing style from Clark and how the midcourt adapts will be key to Loughborough’s final position in the table.
In recent years, Loughborough have developed into a very consistent team, reaching the grand final in four of the past five (completed) seasons, and winning their first title in 2021. With the team they’ve assembled, they must be a strong chance to reach the decider again. They should certainly make the top four.
Coach: Asha Francis
2022 Placing: 3rd
Ins and Outs: Team Bath has a long history of success in the Superleague, but for Asha Francis, who takes over from long term coach Anna Stembridge, this season is likely to be a real challenge. It’s very much a new-look team that takes to the court this season, as six of the seven starting players from last year’s third-place finish are no longer there.
Kim Borger, Rachel Shaw, Layla Guscoth, Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, and Phumza Maweni are all gone, and Tash Pavelin suffered an ACL injury in training, so will miss the entire season. In recent days, Malawi Queens captain Caroline Mtukule has signed on to replace her. Defender Lily-May Catling is the new captain, with shooter Betsy Creak vice-captain. They lead a side featuring a definite mix of youth and experience.
Summer Artman returns to Bath after a year away, while Kadeen Corbin and Bethan Dyke bring in some years under their belts. Corbin joins after being unwanted as a shooter by Mavericks and she will have a point to prove. At the other end of the scale are talented 18-year-olds – defender Jayda Pechova and shooter Sophie Kelly. Pechova in particular is a player to watch for the future. Add in young New Zealand midcourter Ali Wilshier, and the team has a fresh look about it.
Key Player: The sole starting player returning is Imogen Allison, and a lot of Bath’s fortunes will rest on her shoulders. Fresh from playing a big part in the recent Quad Series, much will be expected of the Roses midcourter. With a big year ahead, she is taking a break from the captaincy, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be a leader on court.
Prediction: Bath has traditionally challenged for end of season honours, but after what is essentially a squad re-build since last year, reaching the finals, on paper at least, looks to be a tough ask. New defensive players Pechova and Artman will have to hit their straps early if they are to provide the same level of turnover ball previously created by former defender Layla Guscoth. Much will be expected of new arrival Wilshier, and her links with new recruits Kelly and Corbin will be key to Bath’s fortunes.
A place in the top four looks a stretch for a team in a re-building phase, but the side has a fierce reputation to defend – a good start to the season will be key to their success in 2023.
Coach: Sam Bird
2022 Placing: 4th
Ins and Outs: After a very creditable fourth placing in 2022, London Pulse head coach Sam Bird has to be heading into the new season full of confidence, with this year’s team looking stronger again. Led by defenders in captain Zara Everitt and vice-captain Lindsay Keable, Pulse has strength all over the court.
The playing list was already full of terrific up-and-coming players. The one weakness to now has simply been a lack of experience. How do you solve that problem? By signing the most experienced player in the competition in Jade Clarke, and another international, who has played at the top level for more than a decade, in Chelsea Pitman.
Joining them in an exciting midcourt are youngsters Ellie Rattu, Alicia Scholes and Ash Dekker. This provides Bird with numerous options. Then it will be up to goal attacks Sasha McDonald and Berri Neil to provide the support to 22-year-old goal shooter Olivia Tchine, who is a genuine match winner. In defence, hopefully back this season in a big way is Halimat Adio. Injury has ruined her last two Super League campaigns, so Adio will be looking to make up for lost time.
Key Player: There is no doubt the Pulse player that most want to watch is 20-year-old Funmi Fadoju. Fadoju’s stature in the game is growing all the time, along with her confidence. On the international stage over the last six months Fadoju unleashed on the world what she’s capable of. In last season’s Super League, she finished fourth for possession gains and intercepts, and a clear first for deflections – and she’s only getting better. A scary prospect for rival teams.
Prediction: This is surely the year when Pulse deliver on their potential. With Fadoju developing new skills every time she plays, and the recruitment of two experienced and wily campaigners in middle, Pulse has strength across the court. Tchine’s breakout performances for the Roses will have given the youngster plenty of confidence, and Pulse will be looking for a good run of form for her in combination with Aussie shooter McDonald as the team looks to move up the table.
Given their strength, Pulse surely won’t go backwards. They should be making the semi finals at a bare minimum, and who knows how far they can go from there. Could this be the year London take the title?
Coach: Camilla Buchanan
2022 Placing: 5th
Ins and Outs: So near, but yet so far. In recent years, the Mavericks have come close, but just failed to make the Super League playoffs. Incredibly, they have finished fifth in each of the last four completed seasons. There is a new coach at the helm this year in Camilla Buchanan, to try to take them further. Tamsin Greenway has also joined the club as head of strategic performance.
Sasha Corbin has been retained as captain, but five new players have been recruited in an effort to give the team a consistent all-court performance. The defence-end looks especially strong, with Monique Meyer from South Africa and Christina Shaw from Wales, joining England Roses Razia Quashie and Jodie Gibson. Quashie is on the comeback trail from an Achilles injury, so the extra depth in the defensive circle could be important.
Midcourter Lisa Mather has been signed from Northern Stars in New Zealand. She has shown great promise in the ANZ Premiership and will be expected to fill the wing defence position, playing alongside Beth Ecuyer-Dale and Corbin. Meanwhile, Kira Rothwell and Ellie Kelk have been recruited for the shooting circle to partner Ine-Mari Venter. Britney Clarke is also an option at shooter.
Key Player: Fresh off the Quad Series, South Africa goaler Ine-Mari Venter will play a crucial role for Mavericks. With two relatively-inexperienced shooters joining the team, Venter will need to take command of the shooting circle. If required, she can swing between both shooting positions to mix up the style of play.
Prediction: New coach Buchanan will be looking to bring some of the grit she displayed as a player to meld her unfamiliar line up into a solid playing unit. After showing promise during limited courttime at Storm, Kelk will bring variety and drive to the Mavericks frontline, and Buchanan will be hoping for another dominant season from Venter.
Quashie, Gibson and Meyer will be looking for a strong connection from the start to shore up the defence, but the key to success will surely be the midcourt’s ability to reduce its unforced errors which have cost the team dearly in recent seasons. Expect Mavericks to be there or thereabouts again, but can they make the jump to the playoffs?
Elmere van der Berg
Coach: Liana Leota
2022 Placing: 6th
Ins and Outs: Rhinos were certainly busy in the off-season. What an incredible turnover of players under new coach Liana Leota, and what an exciting team she has to work with. Only three players remain from last year’s main squad, in the talented trio of Paige Reed, Brie Grierson, and Vicky Oyesola. To fill the remaining spots on the roster, Rhinos have gone searching far and wide. Captain Nia Jones from Wales leads a team with a real international flavour.
From New Zealand comes goaler Ellie Bird, signed from the Tactix. Bird has family in the UK and a British passport, so that means she doesn’t count as an import. As a result, two exciting South Africans have also been signed – defender Nicola Smith and goaler Elmere van der Berg. Sadly, both players have been on the injured list recently, and missed the recent Quad Series. Hopefully, they can regain fitness to play a meaningful part in the season.
Former Adelaide Thunderbird, Elle McDonald, is vice-captain and has strangely had the honour of representing England before playing in her first Super League match. She will team up with Northern Ireland legend Caroline O’Hanlon in the midcourt. There is talent to burn throughout the squad, including young defender Millie Sanders who was signed from Manchester Thunder.
Key Player: Renowned for her powerhouse work in the midcourt for Thunder in the past, Caroline O’Hanlon will need to use all her court craft to bring such a new-look team together. How she works with McDonald, van der Berg and Bird will go a long way towards deciding Rhinos’ fate this year.
Prediction: Having undergone an almost complete rebuild of its roster during the off season, it would be understandable if Rhinos were slow starters this year. The initial challenge for coach Leota will be to meld the playing styles in her line up, which now features players from across the globe.
A lot depends on the fitness of Smith and van der Berg. If Rhinos can get the side fit and firing, they could certainly challenge the top teams. A possible chance of the playoffs beckons.
Coach: Mikki Austin
2022 Placing: 7th
Ins and Outs: Storm athlete-coach Mikki Austin has played the long game in rebuilding the side, and, thanks to some tremendous signings in the off season, has now assembled a squad capable of lifting the trophy. Layla Guscoth and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis have joined from Team Bath, immediately strengthening both ends of the court dramatically.
Guscoth’s ability to win ball will be crucial, whether she is teamed with Felisitus Kwangwa, Leah Middleton or Hannah Knights. It is great news for Storm and for the league, that Knights, a four-time-NSL-winning captain at Storm and Wasps, is returning after two years out of the game. In the shooting circle, the addition of Drakeford-Lewis should make for an amazing combination with Proscovia Peace. Peace was as solid as a rock at goal shooter last season, leading the league with 853 goals at an astonishing 94% accuracy.
Midcourter Yasmin Brookes will captain the side once again, and it will be up to both Brooks, Austin and Sophia Candappa to provide Peace and Drakeford-Lewis with quality ball supply. The experience of Amy Flanagan and Niamh Cooper rounds out what is a very solid team, primed with experience.
Key Player: Layla Guscoth is unquestionably one of the best defenders in the world, as she has shown numerous times when playing for the Roses. In last year’s NSL, Guscoth finished third for possession gains, fourth for deflections and first for intercepts. She will win plenty of ball in the defence end – it will be up to her new teammates to capitalise.
Prediction: The recruitment of Guscoth and Drakeford-Lewis could prove to be the masterstroke which shifts Storm’s fortunes from also-rans to title-contenders. Guscoth’s defensive fire and Drakeford-Lewis’s accuracy under the post, alongside crowd-favourite Peace, will prove hard to beat. With Austin running the midcourt in tandem with Flanagan, Brookes or Candappa, Storm could be one of the teams to beat at the end of the season.
With the signings they have made, it would be disappointing if Surrey Storm doesn’t challenge strongly for a spot in the playoffs. They should certainly improve on last year’s 7th-place finish.
Coach: Lesley MacDonald
2022 Placing: 8th
Ins and Outs: Compared to some of the other teams, there’s relative stability in the Strathclyde Sirens team for 2023. The major change has been in the leadership position. Captain, Gia Abernethy has retired, and it’s taken two players to fill her big shoes, with Beth Dix and Emily Nicholl to co-captain.
Aside from the loss of Abernethy, the other two outs are Taylor McKevitt and Sarah MacPhail. The biggest signing for this season is Ugandan attacker Stella Oyella. Able to play both as an attacking midcourter and goaler, Oyella gives the Sirens extra options, but where she fits in will be the question. The other signings are midcourter Abi Robson and defender Natalie Bright, who has returned from Australia to play for Sirens for the second time.
There is the basis for a very solid team. The majority of key players have been retained, including Towera Vinkhumbo and defensive partner Nicholl, speedy midcourters Claire Maxwell and Dix and shooters Bethan Goodwin, Emma Barrie and Niamh McCall.
Key Player: After a stellar 2021, Sirens’ defensive maestro Towera Vinkhumbo had another outstanding year in 2022, finishing second for both possession gains and intercepts. The Malawian defender’s combination with Nicholl will again be important in winning ball for their side.
Prediction: With several of the Sirens squad involved in the Scottish Thistles programme, expect to see a more disciplined, accurate approach from the Glasgow-based side, thanks to the input of Scotland head coach Tamsin Greenway. How the side readjusts to the loss of inspirational midcourter and captain Gia Abernathy, and how they react to the demands of travel placed on them will determine how far up the table they finish the year.
A playoff place might be tough to attain, but there is enough talent in this team that they could beat anyone on their day.
Coach: Danielle Titmuss-Morris
2022 Placing: 10th
Ins and Outs: Dragons’ coach Dani Titmuss-Morris has made minimal changes to the side this season, opting to reward the team which made strides last year, in the hope a breakthrough could come. Gabby Sinclair is the side’s big name signing from the Collingwood Magpies in Super Netball, and her speed and guile around the top of the circle should provide the perfect foil for Welsh international Georgia Rowe. Chelsea Beard (nee Lewis) returns to bring another option to the attacking front line.
Former Wasps defender Ella Powell-Davies is a welcome addition to the defensive unit that will once again feature Shaquanda Greene-Noel. The combination of Greene-Noel and Powell-Davies is likely to turn over a lot of ball defensively for their team.
It is up to the midcourt to make the most of that possession, and this is where Dragons have sometimes fallen down in the past. The attacking responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Hannah Leighton, Laura Rudland and Shona O’Dwyer. If they can provide Sinclair and Rowe with sufficient supply, that will go a long way to seeing Dragons notch up some victories.
Key Player: Trinidad and Tobago’s explosive defender Shaquanda Greene-Noel will again play a vital role. She is a consistent ball winner, who finished the 2022 season with a league-leading 119 possession gains. She also finished third for intercepts and deflections. A sign of her ability was at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, where she finished with an incredible 8.2 gains per game, even higher than Shamera Sterling.
Prediction: Despite their lowly position on the ladder, there were quite a few positives in 2022, and the signings of Sinclair and Powell-Davies promise further improvement. That defensive combination of Greene-Noel and Powell-Davies looks especially dangerous. Now, Dragons have to take advantage of their work.
A place in the playoffs is likely beyond them, but Titmuss-Morris is doing a good job with this team. They appear to be heading in the right direction.
Coach: Jo Tripp
2022 Placing: 11th
Ins and Outs: Just like the Rhinos, a giant broom has gone through the Stars club and it’s almost a completely new side. Only two players remain from the 2022 team – Lucy Herdman and Isabelle Eaton. Jo Tripp, who retired as a player at Mavericks in 2021, has now come back, but this time as Stars’ athlete-coach. She has the task of getting this new-look line up to come together as a cohesive unit.
South African Sigi Burger has been signed from Leeds Rhinos. Burger has a British passport, so that will allow her to share the shooting circle with New Zealander Grace Namana. Namana has shown great promise in a short space of time at Southern Steel and Northern Mystics. That will be a combination to watch, with Eaton and Lily Smith providing support off the bench.
It will be interesting to see how much game time Tripp gives herself. It would seem likely that she will share the defensive duties with Herdman, and Rebekah Airey who has been signed from Rhinos. The midcourt has a solid look to it – Jess Shaw has been recruited from Bath and will fill the wing attack position, while centre Gabby Marshall has come from Mavericks. Scottish defender Sarah MacPhail from Sirens is a likely selection for wing defence.
Key Player: In a team with this many changes, some stability and steadiness in the midcourt is required, and Gabby Marshall provides that. She will be the link between defence and attack, and the strength of her combination with Shaw will be vital in achieving success for Stars.
Prediction: Tripp, herself a dogged and determined defender, is another coach that will be focused on blending a number of different playing styles to create a team which fulfils its potential. Look out for an exciting shooting partnership between fan-favourite Burger, and Manama. Meanwhile, Airey and Marshall will be looking to re-establish the form that pushed them to the brink of international honours in seasons gone by.
A playoff place this year looks beyond Stars, but they will be looking to climb the table. If the team can perform at their best, they have the ability to challenge the best in the league.
TOP 4 PREDICTIONS
1. Manchester Thunder
2. Loughborough Lightning
3. London Pulse
4. Surrey Storm
5. Leeds Rhinos
1. London Pulse
2. Manchester Thunder
3. Surrey Storm
4. Loughborough Lightning
5. Leeds Rhinos