By Zara Collings
With 22 matches under our belt, we have reached the first break in the Vitality Netball SuperLeague 2021 season. All teams have come out firing, some more so than others, and in this VNSL free weekend I wanted to take the opportunity to have a look back at some of the standout performances across the first four rounds. We’ve seen plenty of debuts, a return from retirement and a whole host of impressive set plays, turnovers and intercepts, all from a centralised venue in Wakefield that looks nothing short of epic.
After the first four rounds, Loughborough sit atop of the table with four wins from five games on 12 points. What makes Loughborough stand out from the rest of their top four companions, is that they have gathered these points from winning against other final series contenders, with wins over Saracens Mavericks and Wasps. Whilst no side in the league should ever be underestimated, we have seen Loughborough fight hard for some of these victories, something which will stand them in good stead for more fierce encounters in the latter rounds of the competition. Their one loss was to team Bath by only four goals and this was without the attacking force of Ella Clark, who was unavailable for that contest. In contrast, second placed Manchester Thunder have taken their three wins with an incredible 77 goal difference, only two goals less than Loughborough despite having played two fewer matches. For Thunder to maintain this position at the end of the season, they will need to bring the good form and consistency they have shown in these early matches to their more dominating opponents. Round five will be key as they follow up a showdown against Team Bath with a tussle against sixth placed Wasps.
Whilst Lightning, Thunder and Bath are proving to be an unstoppable force so far this season, we have seen some teams take a little longer to get out of first gear. Two-time champions Wasps lost Jade Clarke to Leeds Rhinos in the off-season and her experience and leadership has been lacking in the Wasps midcourt, who have struggled to capitalise on turnover ball. Fran Williams and Josie Huckle are developing an excellent circle defence combination and once Wasps are able to safely bring their gains down court to goal, will certainly be looking to push into the top four. After a strong performance against Surrey Storm, Wasps will be hoping to have shaken the first round nerves and put out more clinical performances as the season progresses.
Mavericks have also had a bumpy start to the season as Covid protocol and injury have left them missing key players in some of the early round matches. Interviews with the players and coach Kat Rapnapala have showed that this is a side that expect much more of themselves than what they have been able to produce thus far. With Ine-Marie Venter making her debut in Round 4 and key defender Jo Tripp to make her return from injury in Round 5, it’s certain that this Mavericks team will come out firing after the weekend break when they meet Strathclyde Sirens in the next round.
At the other end of the table we see London Pulse, Severn Stars and Celtic Dragons yet to put points on the board. This will be incredibly disappointing for all franchises, as all three have been plagued with inconsistency and are struggling to find their best match day combinations. This weekend’s break could not have come at a better time for them and each must ensure they use this time to work on the consistency of their performance in high pressure situations. All three have the capacity to take wins from the top teams in the league and with Dragons taking on Pulse in Round 6, at least one of these teams will have a win to their name by the end of next week.
Top Scorers (av. per game) – Total goals (games played) = average
Mary Cholhok, Loughborough Lightning – 153 (4) = 38.25 goals per game
Joyce Mvula, Manchester Thunder – 87 (3) = 29 goals per game
Karyn Bailey, Surrey Storm – 137 (5) = 27.4 goals per game
Kim Borger, Team Bath – 76 (3) = 25.3 goals per game
Unsurprisingly, our top scorers largely come from the teams sitting at the top of the table. Despite sitting off for half of Lightning’s last game against Stars, Cholhok is strides ahead of the other shooters in the competition, averaging 38.25 goals per game. Whilst this is an incredible performance, it does indicate that Lightning’s game plan is to simply look for Cholhok and both Clark and Liverseige are looking to play more of a feeding goal attack role. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see which teams are able to break this connection and prevent the easy ball in to Cholhok, forcing the Lightning goal attack’s to turn to the post.
Look out for Lightning’s match up against Siren’s in Round 8, as I’m picking out Vinkhumbo to give Cholhok a real run for her money. Vinkhumbo’s impressive elevation has allowed her to cause a lot of disruption for shooting combinations so far and if she can put doubt in the Lightning midcourt’s minds early on, could prove to be the answer for Sirens.
Top Deflections – Total deflections (games played) = average
Leah Middleton, Surrey Storm – 16 (5) = 3.3
Towera Vinkhumbo, Strathclyde Sirens – 12 (4) = 3
Razia Quashie, Saracens Mavericks – 12 (4) = 3
Lucy Herdman, Severn Stars – 10 (4) = 2.5
Top Intercepts – Total interceptions (games played) = average
Razia Quashie, Saracen’s Mavericks – 12 (4) = 3
Towera Vinkhumbo, Strathclyde Sirens – 12 (4) = 3
Vicki Oyesola, Leeds Rhinos – 11 (4) = 2.75
Fran Williams, Wasps – 11 (4) = 2.75
Penalties – Total penalties (games played) = average
Leah Middleton, Surrey Storm – 75 (5) = 15
Alima Priest, Surrey Storm – 67 (5) = 13.4
Halimat Adio, London Pulse – 39 (3) = 13
Towera Vinkhumbo, Strathclyde Sirens – 49 (4) = 12.25
Upon face value, it may be concerning for Storm fans to see Leah Middleton top the penalties count, averaging 15 penalties a game. However she also tops the deflections and gains list, showing that she is indeed getting a lot of clean ball and winning possession back for her team. What should be a worrying sign for Storm, is that she is joined at the top of the penalty count by her goal keeper Alima Priest. With both the starting goal defence and goal keeper attracting this much whistle, Storm has been struggling to maintain defensive pressure and not get blown out of games. This is something that will need to be looked at this the weekend, as you simply cannot be gifting your opposition that many uncontested shots or free passes at this level.
Towera Vinkhumbo has been an impressive addition to the Sirens defensive line, joining the side late in pre-season after Proteas’ Zanele Vimbela was ruled out of the season through injury. Vinkhumbo has seized this opportunity and is running the Sirens defensive show, picking up an impressive three intercepts and deflections on average per game. Her ability to turn these tips into gains has been so important for Sirens, something which will only get even better with time, as she continues to develop her connection with her new teammates.
Another notable mention has to go to Vicki Oyesola, who has stepped up as a real leader on court for Rhinos in the defensive end. Teaming up initially with Tuaine Keenan and later Paige Kindred, Oyesola has pulled in some incredible intercepts and has really commanded the circle. This demonstration of skill and leadership will certainly be impressing England Head Coach Jess Thirlby, who has watched every game from the sidelines.
Thirlby will also be impressed with English Rose Razia Quashie, who tops the interceptions stat, despite having to adapt to multiple defensive partners due to Jo Tripp’s injury. Quashie has been a strong force in the Mavericks defensive end and has an innate ability to read the play and disrupt even the most fluid of attacking line-ups.
Whilst circle feeds and goal assists aren’t measured as a stat at VNSL level, there are some mid-court combinations that have really blown their opposition out of the water so far this season.
Strathclyde Sirens combination of Nicola McCleery, Gia Abernethy and Taylor Cullen have been seriously impressive, with Beth Dix making an impact whenever she’s been brought on to the court at WA. McCleery and Abernethy have a great understanding and read off each other to balance the attacking third. After losing star GA Lynsey Gallagher in Round three, the Sirens middies have really stepped up, putting the extra yards in the down court movement to take the pressure off Goodwin, who has been covering the goal attack spot.
Going into the season, it was evident that Thunder had strength and depth across the midcourt, but the opening four rounds have demonstrated this in bucketloads. As such a defensively minded midcourt, the Thunder middies have been able to turn over a lot of ball, with the combination of Carter, Malcolm and O’Hanlon picking up 9 deflections and six intercepts between them across only three games. For players largely sitting in WA and C, these are some impressive stats.
With Cobden and Panagarry both vying for a spot in that Commonwealth Games squad in 2022, Lightning’s midcourt was certainly going to have a lot of grit in 2021. The through court defensive pressure has been immense, Cobden and Panagarry enable their defensive end to pick up a lot of ball with their ability to delay the opposition’s movement block vision in to the circle. Hannah Joseph has also been impressive in the WA position and although she has a pretty easy target in Mary Cholhok, is an important cog in the Lightning shooting machine.
NETBALL SCOOP’S “POWER RANKINGS”
As all eleven teams have currently played a different number of matches, therefore, we wanted to have a bit of fun and put together our own version of the VNSL 2021 table. Taking into consideration all the predictions from the Netball Scoop VNSL team who have ranked in each team from 1-11, the following is how we as a collective unit envisage the table looking at the end of the season. Do you agree?
- Team Bath
Daisey Cotterill – “The depth Bath have in their team is seriously impressive and the way they are extremely efficient and clinical right throughout leaves me fangirling over them every game, so for me they have to be my league winners!”
- Loughborough Lightning
Ian Harkin “I just think the Lightning team is improving all the time. On the opening weekend, they beat Wasps by a goal after losing to Bath by just 4 and in both matches they were without Ella Clark who makes a big difference to the team. Cholhok is just so dangerous.”
- Manchester Thunder
Rona Hunnisett – “Without Kathryn Turner, their front line lacks a little bite. However, they’ve got matchwinners all through the court, and with Karen Greig and Tracey Neville at the helm, I wouldn’t bet against them. They’ve also got the experience of winning against the odds in previous years and cannot be counted out.”
- Saracens Mavericks
Rona Hunnisett – “The return of Jodie Gibson has been a major boost for the side, particularly while they are still missing Jo Trip. They certainly have the line-up on paper to challenge for top honours but they need to cut out silly errors in attack if they are to press on for the title.”
Wasps were just edged out of our top 4 by the smallest of margins. They’ve struggled with consistency throughout the season so far with their turnover conversion not quite where it needs to be. They do have plenty of leaders within the team that know how to win, none bigger than Rachel Dunn, so I’d like to see her step up and provide a calming influence in the attacking end.
Bethany Lord – “Rhinos are a team that has grit, and whilst they might not have the experience of some of the other teams, I think they’re a team that works well together with every player that comes on on court making a contribution and doing their role. Even with their injuries, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw them cause some serious upsets this season.”
Iona St. Joseph – “I just will not give up on this Sirens side. Sure, you could say it’s because I’m Scottish, so there’s probably a sprinkling of patriotism in there, but I’m just excited to see how they carry on through the season as some of those combinations are looking brilliant.”
Eve Cobbett – “Storm have been the real surprise of this season so far, with Sophie Kelly already having made herself a fan favourite and Priest and Middleton becoming quite the defensive duo. If Storm start to believe they can win, they could definitely cause some upsets going forward. “
Bethany Lord – “Although they haven’t gotten off to a great start, I do think they have a lot of potential and talent in their squad, although they are lacking that drive in the attacking end at the moment. If London Pulse can get it together for the rest of the season, I can see them pushing into that middle group and progressing up the ladder, but it’s going to take a huge amount of work from Sam Bird and her squad. “
Daisey Cotterill – “Stars have come out with some good performances this season and seeing the likes of Lucy Herdman against Mary Cholhok and giving an impressive performance has been great to see!”
Eve Cobbett – “Although Dragons have had an underwhelming start to the season, they started to show what they’re capable of against Mavericks, winning their first quarter of 2021. The headache for Dragons comes in the form of Annika-Lee Jones. She had a great game at GS, far better than any of her performances at GK, but where does that leave Dragons defensively? And is it fair to leave Amy Clinton on the bench when she has been a stand out for Dragons thus far?”