2021 NS Europe Contributors – Zara Collings, Eve Cobbett, Daisey Cotterill, Rona Hunnisett, Bethany Lord, Iona St Joseph and Ian Harkin
Many thanks to the talented photographers that have captured each special moment this season and allowed their work to be used. They have brought the League to life when so many were unable to cheer their teams on in person and have continued to give up so much of their time to share their work with us all. Many thanks to Ben Lumley, Morgan Harlow, Steve Porter, Chloe Knott/Getty Images and all the club media reps for their work this season.
It was a fairytale finish for Loughborough Lightning as they earned their first Vitality Netball Super League title with a comprehensive victory over Team Bath 49-32.
VNSL GRAND FINAL: LOUGHBOROUGH LIGHTNING 49 def TEAM BATH NETBALL 32
Match report by Zara Collings
After an errant first centre pass of the game flew off the sideline untouched, Loughborough appeared to have gotten their nerves out of their system and began to dominate across court. They were clinical in both attack and defence and after winning the first quarter 11-7, the Midlands side did not look back.
After such an emotional performance against Manchester Thunder to secure their Grand Final position, Team Bath remained one step behind Lightning for almost all of the 48 minutes. They struggled to bring turnover ball through court and in the shooting circle, the combination of Kim Borger and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis that had started the season so strongly, again appeared disconnected and out of sync, due to the impressive work from Lightning’s Sam May, who prevented Drakeford-Lewis from exploiting the baseline as she has done all season.
After only tallying four goals in over thirty minutes on court, English Rose Drakeford-Lewis was brought off court for the inexperienced Betsy Creak in the third quarter, pushing Bath’s Captain Kim Borger out to Goal Attack. When asked about this change in the post-match press conference, Bath Head Coach Anna Stembridge said that delaying personnel changes were a case of “influencing what’s out there with who’s out there, but in the third quarter there was definitely that shift in terms of we were going to make that change with Betsy and then there was definitely a shift back in terms of momentum.” The introduction of Creak certainly sparked something in the Bath attack, as they won their only quarter of the match in the third, scoring ten goals to Lightning’s nine.
However it was just not their day, as Bath looked lethargic and completely beaten by the fourth quarter, allowing Lightning to steamroll on to take the quarter 18-8. The team was driven the entire match by Captain and midcourt engine Nat Panagarry, who kept her cool in a fierce battle with Roses teammate Serena Guthrie. Ensuring she was always an option, it was evident that Panagarry had the trust of her teammates throughout the entire match, indicative of her excellent leadership qualities off court too.
As Head Coach Sara Francis-Bayman alluded to in her post-match press conference, there were so many mini stories woven together that made this win for Lightning so special. It was the last match of her career for Samantha May, an Aussie superstar that has given her all to the UK domestic league. Beth Cobden had made an emphatic return to netball after suffering her third ACL injury in the 2019 season of Suncorp Super Netball. It was the first win for Francis-Bayman since she transitioned to coaching, cheered on all the way by her former Manchester Thunder teammates. Each and every Lightning player understood the role they had to play and executed it perfectly, combining to deliver a history-defining performance.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH: BETH COBDEN (LIGHTNING)
It’s been quite the season for Beth Cobden, returning to court and the Vitality Netball Superleague more than twelve months after suffering her third ACL injury whilst playing for the Adelaide Thunderbirds in Suncorp Super Netball. As a specialist Wing Defence, Cobden does a monumental volume of work for her Lightning teammates, tracking ball, bringing the ball through court, providing an option on the centre pass and using her impressive arm span to nab plenty of deft deflections. Her ability to nullify her opposing Wing Attack enables the defenders sitting behind her to pick up plenty of ball, delaying play to give them plenty of time to come out for the flying intercept. Cobden does all this every single week, with a huge smile on her face. A player who appears to be truly loving her netball, being awarded player of the match in this historic win for Loughborough Lightning really is just the icing on the cake after a fantastic season.
A closer look at Loughborough Lightning
By Eve Cobbett
Starting lineup: GS: Cholhok, GA: Clark, WA: Joseph, C: Panagarry, WD: Cobden, GD: Odeogberin, GK: May
Prior to this weekend, Loughborough Lightning had never won a Super League title. They’d come close, with Loughborough teams having made grand finals 3 times and current squad members Beth Cobden, Ella Clark and Nat Panagarry even being on the losing side of the 2018 Grand Final. Until this weekend, Loughborough Lightning had always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. They shook off their history of losing, however, and emerged from this weekend triumphant, brushing aside Leeds Rhinos and Team Bath on their path to victory.
It was a nervous start for Loughborough, with Panagarry throwing the ball off the sideline and earning a not-received call from umpire Gary Burgess. Clark soon made up for the mistake though, getting low and tapping the ball out of Bath Goal Defence Layla Guscoth’s reach. This was all within the first 30 seconds, and set the tone for the see-saw first quarter to come. Although Loughborough finished the first 12 minutes up by 4 goals, a win didn’t yet seem certain. Whilst Cobden and Sam May were doing some fantastic work defensively, both picking up interceptions and forcing the ball off the sideline, Goal Defence Jas Odeogberin was yet to work herself into the game, the defensive unit not yet quite up and running. Up in the attacking end, Clark was bringing the flair from her basketball game onto the netball court, but also forcing balls off the backline to Mary Cholhok. This was similar to Hannah Joseph, who alongside Clark was prone to throwing the ball off the backline, and miss-timing her drives, going far too early and being smothered by Serena Guthrie and Imogen Allison. Bath, and England Roses, Goal Keeper Eboni Usoro-Brown arguably had the better of Mary Cholhok in the first quarter, too. Although significantly shorter, Usoro-Brown was able to outmuscle Cholhok, manoeuvring her out of position to force the ball off the backline.
There was a reason Loughborough Lightning came out as winners today though, and that was their ability to stay cool and calm in the face of immense pressure, and put right what they were doing wrong. Joseph came on to court in quarter 2 a different player, having looked at how Guthrie and Allison were shutting her down, and doing the prep work to prevent that. She began to pass and cut, something she hadn’t been doing in the first quarter, using her speed to lose Guthrie and/or Allison. Quarter 2 also saw Odeogberin inject herself into the game. She was outstanding against Bath in Round 20 when she got in front of Sophie Drakeford-Lewis and forced her and Kim Borger to run laterally behind herself and May. Within 30 seconds of quarter 2 she forced Bath’s shooters to do this again, with Guthrie having no option but to lift the ball and see it spill over the backline. Up the other end, however, Clark began to lift the ball between her and Cholhok too, much to Usoro-Brown’s delight. She picked off this ball to earn Bath a goal back, and then a contact call against Panagarry, on Guthrie, on the edge of the Loughborough circle, lost them possession again. This was followed by an uncharacteristic miss from Clark, with Cholhok then unable to keep the ball from going off the backline. Team Bath had brought the game back to within two and it looked like it was game on again. In response, Panagarry forced Bath to spill the ball off the sideline again, with 4 minutes to go, and the momentum swung back in Lightning’s favour. This was a real captain’s performance from Panagarry, who was a nuisance throughout quarter 2. Her positioning was phenomenal, floating and constantly nibbling at lateral balls to put doubt in the Bath’s players minds and force poor passes.
Quarter 3 started with Bath forcing a turnover again, but ended up being defined by Cobden’s dominance over Team Bath Wing Attack Rachel Shaw. Shaw set up camp for herself in the left-hand pocket of Bath’s attacking third in this quarter, and Cobden did an exceptional job of forcing her to stay there for the majority of the 12 minutes. This was arguably Bath’s undoing as with Shaw covered Bath’s rotating circle, which relies on passes in and out of the circle on the move, was stunted, with Borger and Drakeford-Lewis’ play becoming increasingly ragged. Whilst Bath continued to threaten in quarter 3, with Usoro-Brown beginning to take some ball off Cholhok again, Lightning remained calm and patient. Cobden picked up the ball Loughborough needed to counteract the threat of Usoro-Brown, with May and Odeogberin doing their part to build pressure in the circle and force more Bath ball off the backline. Most importantly, Lightning continued to take their own ball to goal, not allowing Bath to capitalise on their gains and make in-roads on the score. This was most clearly evident in the final 30 seconds of quarter 3, where Bath had the opportunity to bring the score back to within 5. Shaw received the centre pass and instead of looking straight to goal decided to throw the ball back to Allison, via a weak and lifted pass over Cobden’s head. Cobden, of course, ate the ball alive. This was typical of Bath in this game, and demonstrates the great work Lightning did to force Bath into making passes they didn’t really want to make at a time when the correct decision could have turned the momentum back in their favour.
And so we entered the final quarter, 7 goals separating the two sides. Lightning started the quarter with intent, the defence forcing a held ball within the first minute of being back on court. They capitalised on this turnover, and within a minute and a half the score had blown out to 9 goals. With 3 minutes gone in the final quarter, Bath coach Anna Stembridge was forced into making changes, bringing Betsy Creak on in Goal Shooter and moving Kim Borger down to Goal Attack. This was a change many questioned, with Wing Attack Shaw seeming to be the issue in Bath’s attacking line, not their shooters. What Lightning did so successfully, however, was take Shaw out of the game knowing full well Bath did not really have a direct replacement for her on the bench. In her post-match interview Anna Stembridge was asked why she waited so long to make the changes, and why she made those changes, to which she replied Bath were ‘trying to see if actually we could pull it back in those first few minutes. If we got back within 4 or 5 it would have been game on but credit to Loughborough, they were really hard to take ball off.’ This sums up Lightning’s performance in the final quarter, continually absorbing any pressure Bath applied and stubbornly refusing to give into it. With 8 minutes to go captain Panagarry gobbled up yet another lateral ball to take Lightning’s lead out to 11 goals. From this moment on it looked unlikely, even with the changes, that Bath would be able to mount a comeback. Lightning continued on their merry way, playing calmly and with a far superior focus than Bath.
There were questions before the game as to whether Lightning’s ‘easy’ route to the final would prove to be detrimental in the long run. Whilst Team Bath had to battle it out against Manchester Thunder in the semi-final, only taking the win by 3 goals, Lightning had a more straight-forward game on Saturday, easing past Leeds Rhinos by 20 goals. This meant that whilst Bath were forced to dig deep and play with a winning mentality yesterday, Lightning were able to cruise through with many key players ending the game resting on the bench. There was therefore a lot of chatter about whether Lightning would enter this game complacent, or be able to mentally withstand a tight game. In the end, the reverse was true. Bath started this game looking exhausted, with the fatigue from their semi-final clearly impacting on their decision making. Lightning, on the other hand, were energetic, focused, and able to play their own game. What was most impressive about Lightning, however, was their calmness, steely determination and singular focus on themselves. This has undoubtedly developed under the influence of Lightning coach Sara Francis-Bayman, who in her post-match interview said that Lightning were determined to embrace the opportunity they had, and not to see this as another final that they could potentially lose.
Whilst Lightning head back up to the Midlands to celebrate their win, the rest of us are left pondering Lightning’s future. Could this be a team we see dominate the Vitality Netball Superleague for years to come? Sam May is the only Lightning player to announce her retirement and the only player we know we definitely will not be seeing on court for Lightning next season. Alice Harvey waits in the wings, presumably next in line to take the Goal Keeper bib. She has already shown what she can do in defence this season and appears more than capable of picking up where May left off. If the rest of this Lightning team stays on next season, one can only imagine they have a great chance of dominating (and winning) once again.
A closer look at Team Bath
By Bethany Lord
Starting lineup: GS: Borger GA: Drakeford-Lewis WA: R.Shaw C: Guthrie WD: Allison GD: Guscoth GK: Usoro-Brown
It’s fair to say that right from the beginning of the 2021 Vitality Netball Super League season, we were all expecting Team Bath to be there in that final match. With an impressive number of internationals on their side, they were the team to beat this season, and managed to hold on to the top ladder spot right until the end in Round 20, when a loss to Loughborough Lightning pushed them down to third place on goal difference.
After a hard-fought, emotional win against Manchester Thunder in yesterday’s semi-finals (which fans would be forgiven for thinking was the grand final itself, based on the quality of the play and the passion from the players), Team Bath once again came up against Loughborough Lightning with something to prove, having lost the last match of the home and away season to them in what was an (arguably) unexpected 54-35 goal loss.
The first centre pass was thrown away by Lightning centre Nat Panagarry, which set the tone for the first quarter of the match – scrappy. Both teams struggled to settle into the game; there were unforced errors, poor passing decisions allowing for defensive intercepts, a lack of drive onto the ball and just all around not the kind of play we’ve come to expect from these two teams. Things started to tidy up towards the end of the quarter, with Bath putting some great defensive pressure onto Lightning’s centre passes and causing a turnover. The final minute of the quarter saw Team Bath GS & captain Kim Borger complete what just might be the most impressive GS play from the 2021 season (56:54 on the Sky Sports livestream), and although the quarter ended 11-7 to Lightning you had the feeling that Bath were just getting started.
Despite a strong end to the first quarter, Bath didn’t come out firing as we expected them to in Q2. Lightning WD and player of the match Beth Cobden was everywhere and really seemed to be controlling the play through Bath’s attacking half of the court, preventing them from making any inroads. They appeared to be a bit ragged, slow, and almost like their heads weren’t in it. The effects of yesterday’s tight, physical match seemed to be starting to have an effect on their starting seven, who had played the full 48 minutes of yesterday’s game with no changes. The play remained quite scrappy for a Grand Final from both teams, with Lightning making quite a few unforced errors, however Bath were unable to convert on the turnover. They were managing to do well defensively on preventing the Lightning shooters from taking first ball in a shooting position, forcing more passes and allowing C Serena Guthrie and WD Imogen Allison to pick up quite a lot of ball on the circle edge, but struggled to shut down Lightning GS and Gilbert Golden Shot winner Mary Cholhok. GK Eboni Usoro-Brown just didn’t seem to have enough elevation on the jump, the speed or the agility to contain Cholhok, and whilst you can only do so much in a one on one against a player like Cholhok, with Guscoth dropping back to double up on Cholhok they often left Lightning GA Ella Clarke open and unmanned, a dangerous proposition. At the other end, despite her great end to the first quarter, Borger was being smothered by Lightning GK Sam May, and things were starting to fall apart for Team Bath, ending the quarter 22-14.
After a disappointing first half, it appeared a tactical change was needed from Team Bath, as pointed out by Tamsin Greenway during the half-time analysis. Bath weren’t coming forward for the ball on the second phase centre pass, hanging back behind their defence and allowing the ball to get picked up. The shooters were being smothered by Lightning’s rotating defensive play, and with Loughborough Lightning playing a front position style of defence, Team Bath needed to find a way to do the early, off ball prep and make themselves an option. Bath captain Kim Borger said that obviously they weren’t where they expected to be in terms of the score, but that ‘this is only a few turnovers’, and that Team Bath needed to back themselves and ‘remember that we got here for a reason.’ It was hard not to feel inspired after Borger’s passionate half time interview, and whatever she said to her team clearly had an impact, as Bath managed to come back to within 5 goals in the third quarter. Unfortunately, this didn’t last, and the quarter ended 31-24 in favour of Lightning. Bath looked tired in the third quarter, and their decision making suffered. Beth Cobden completely took WA Rachel Shaw out of the game and picked off just about every ball Bath attempted.
Despite the changes in momentum in the third quarter, Team Bath coach Anna Stembridge didn’t make any changes until midway through the fourth quarter, first putting Betsy Creak on into GS and pushing Kim Borger out to GA, and then taking WD Imogen Allison off to make way for Tash Pavelin. It was too little too late for Team Bath, who needed some fresh legs and some tactical changes earlier on in the game (particularly in the WA position as Rachel Shaw had been completely taken out of the game by Beth Cobden very early on), and Lightning drew out their lead to win the game 49-32.
Despite putting out a performance that wasn’t quite what we’ve come to expect from Team Bath, they were right in it until the last quarter – if any team could come back from 7 goals down at three quarter time in a grand final against such tough opposition, it would be Team Bath. But in the context of this game, 7 goals was a huge ask and the tactical and personnel changes that it appeared were needed to make this dream a possibility just weren’t there. Loughborough Lightning came to play, and unfortunately Team Bath just didn’t have it in them today. Did yesterday’s game take it out of the Team Bath side and prevent them from playing their best today? During the post match interviews coach Anna Stembridge said ‘I honestly don’t know’, mentioning how the players had recovered well and all had experience playing back to back games, some internationally and some with this season’s double headers. All credit to Team Bath, who really did leave it all out on court today – the players walked off that court clearly knackered. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t to be for them in this year’s grand final.
So what’s next for Team Bath? With the line-up they had this year, they were touted as the team to beat right from the get-go. Whilst other teams continued to build and improve throughout their season and hit their run at the right time, Bath went through the 2021 season largely unchallenged until the final rounds. Did they improve throughout the season, or were they allowed to rest on their laurels and left scrambling when they suddenly found themselves challenged? Given how the season played out, one has to be inclined to think it’s the latter – however with multiple other teams now rising to their level and able to challenge an impressive Team Bath line-up right from the start of the 2022 season, we should see more tighter matches for Team Bath, which will lead to them being pushed harder to improve and be creative in the way that they approach the game. If they can keep their core group together for next year, we’re in for a showdown of a season, and Bath will surely once again be a team to watch.
3RD PLACE PLAYOFF: MANCHESTER THUNDER 43 def LEEDS RHINOS 34
Match report by Zara Collings
Despite going toe to toe for the majority of the third placed playoff match, Manchester Thunder’s previous finals experience gave them the edge over league newcomers Leeds Rhinos and led them to secure third place for 2021. It was a closely fought contest, with Rhinos taking the first and the third quarters and Thunder winning the second and fourth. After a disappointing loss the day before, this was a Thunder side gunning for redemption, as Karen Grieg acknowledged post-match. “I think we just had to look at yesterday and address it … yesterday didn’t define our season, it was about finishing strong today and showing that great determination that we’ve shown all season and making sure we finish on a result and a performance that we can be proud of.”
Player of the Match Kerry Almond put in an immense shift against the young Sienna Rushton, who again struggled with her accuracy under the post. Yet, having not played a full game since Round 9, Rushton’s connection with Rhea Dixon was impressive, with the two moving well in the circle. Speaking on Rushton’s performance after the game, Rhinos Head Coach Dan Ryan said, “I’ve loved working with Sienna and she’s going to be one of England’s best in time. I think she’s so talented. She’s such a student of the game and the way she reflects on performances, the way she analyses her game, the amount of growth she’s had both technically in the way she plays and also as a 19 year old young woman – she’s really quite a unique person.”
Whilst Rhinos stuck with the same starting seven throughout the match, Thunder were not afraid to tweak their line-up to get what they wanted from the match. As in the semi-final the day before, Elia McCormick was brought on to Wing Defence for a short spell, allowing Laura Malcolm to take the Centre bib. This switch-up provided Thunder with additional drive in the midcourt and Malcolm’s speed and flair facilitated an easier route into Mvula and Cardwell. This new attacking edge was exactly what Karen Grieg had hoped to achieve with the change, saying “I thought we were doing fantastic defensively but I thought we just needed a slight change in attack and I think Malcs gave us that for that period of time. It wasn’t necessarily about changing the defensive line but it was impacting the attack.”
With the score eventually blowing out to a nine goal gap, Thunder comfortably forged ahead to secure a third placed finish.
Rhinos Head Coach Dan Ryan was thrilled to lead his team to fourth position in their inaugural year. “‘You always measure success externally on winning and losing. But for me we’re really focused on [whether we] have got the best out of everyone throughout the course of the season. And I think based on where we are as a team right now, we leave the court today knowing we’ve given absolutely everything this year to be as good as we possibly can be … we’re actually very proud of 4th place all things considered. The players have done brilliantly, they’ve all developed exceptionally well and we’ve created something that’s really quite special. We’ve played for each other … give everything you’ve got and if it’s good enough it’s good enough, and today we were very close. So we’ll take it.”
Under such difficult circumstances, this is only the tip of the iceberg for the franchise, who will aspire to even greater heights in the coming seasons.
As for Manchester Thunder, an exciting offseason is approaching. We will all be waiting with bated breath to see if finals Player of the Match Kerry Almond will re-retire from elite netball, however don’t expect to see her move far away from the netball world. When asked what Kerry’s plans were next, Karen Grieg simply said, “You’ll see.”
A closer look at Manchester Thunder
By Iona St Joseph
Starting lineup: GS Mvula, GA Cardwell, WA O’Hanlon, C Carter, WD Malcolm, GD Dovey, GK Almond
The 2019 defending champions will have been disappointed not to be battling it out for the title again in season 2021, but there’s no denying that they had a strong season. A side that is steeped in netball history, and with an iconic coaching duo in the form of Karen Greig and Tracy Neville, Thunder’s fans have backed them all the way.
It was a slow start for the Manchester side in the third place playoff match, understandably so after their epic battle with Team Bath the day before. ,They headed into the quarter time break down by one goal. As captain Emma Dovey said at half time, they just needed to blow the cobwebs away and that’s exactly what they did, going into the second quarter looking like a renewed side. The ball seemed to flow much easier into Joyce Mvula in Goal Shooter, and they capitalised well on mistakes from Rhinos. With 13 goals scored in the second quarter, all from the hand of Mvula, compared to Rhinos’ seven, they certainly looked the stronger side going into the half time break.
After a fantastic second quarter, fans would have been forgiven for thinking that Thunder had the game in the bag, but it wasn’t quite done and dusted. England Head Coach Jess Thirlby mentioned in the half time analysis that the third / fourth place play off match is psychologically tough, and despite Thunder’s push in the second quarter, it seemed to be Rhinos with the confidence and energy coming out of half time. Despite 15 attempts in the second, Mvula finished the third quarter on just two goals and Goal Attack Ellie Cardwell was starting to look tired. Laura Malcom picked up plenty of ball in the middle of the court, but some uncharacteristic errors and a quiet quarter from the Thunder attack allowed Rhinos back into the game. Intervention from the umpire towards the end of the third quarter let both teams know that the physicality was starting to get out of hand, so it really was anybody’s game going into the fourth.
It was the experience of Thunder that shone through in the final quarter, particularly from player of the match Kerry Almond, as they managed to continue the form they had found in the second quarter. Caroline O’Hanlon and Amy Carter managed to find the path into their shooters a lot more easily, and the seven players on court seemed to find the energy for that final push through the last 12 minutes to take the win 43-34. Coach Karen Grieg had the following to say about Almond’s performance after the game:
“Kerry has been an inspiration to everyone all season. We dragged her out of retirement and as everyone can see, she is probably in the shape of her life and playing some of the best netball we’ve ever seen her play. It was great that she woke up in the second half and got some great turnovers”
They certainly didn’t make it easy for themselves at points throughout this game, and it looked like some of the Thunder players were ready for the break that the end of the season will bring. Usually renowned for their patience on the ball, there were a few times where Thunder let the frustration show, but in the end it was a convincing win on the board.
It’s been a strong season for the Manchester side across the board, losing just three of their regular season games and finishing in third place on the table. It was only Team Bath that managed to beat the Manchester side in both of their head to heads, so it was always going to be a tough ask for Thunder to take the semi-final on Saturday evening.
We’ve seen brilliance across the court from Thunder this season, Captain Emma Dovey and Kerry Almond continuing their decade-long defensive partnership, despite Almond retiring at the end of 2019. You can’t talk about defence without mentioning Laura Malcom, undoubtedly one of the best in the league. We’ve seen her move between Centre and Wing Defence, but for me she’s really cemented herself as a key part of that defensive unit and thinking ahead, Jess Thirlby’s going to have a tough time choosing who gets the start and Wing Defence in the Roses starting seven.
When asked post-match about how important the defensive play down court has been, Dovey said:
“I think it makes a massive difference for us at the back. If that ball is firing through really quickly it makes our task near impossible. So I think when they’re putting the pressure on, slowing the ball down, it means we can get intercepts.”
Caroline O’Hanlon’s move into Wing Attack this season has been one of the main talking points about the Thunder line-up, and it’s certainly paid off. When that attacking end is on song, they can move the ball seamlessly into the shooters and with Amy Carter alongside her in Centre, it’s hard for any opposing team to stop those feeds in from the circle edge.
Thunder’s shooting end has been the most prolific in the league this season. Whilst Lightning’s Mary Cholhok has scored the most goals of any single player, the combination of Joyce Mvula and Ellie Cardwell meant that Thunder racked up a whopping 1,177 goals across the season. With Cardwell’s range from distance and Mvula’s ability to pull in high balls, teamed with that iconic split under the post, they’re not easy to stop.
One of the things fans have also enjoyed about Thunder this season is the fact that they have given chances to the youngsters on the bench. We’ve seen the likes of Elia McCormick, Berri Neil and Lois Pearson take to the court on several occasions, so it’s fantastic to see the next generation of players coming up through the ranks and being rewarded with court time.
In her post match interview, Coach Karen Greig spoke about the fact that they’ve started talking to players about next season over the past few weeks, looking to continue what they have achieved in 2021 and building on the squad that they have. It will be interesting to see whether Kerry Almond feels as though she wants to stay on and what they will do differently to book a place in the grand final in 2022. When asked whether they were going to try and convince Almond to stick around, Grieg wasn’t giving anything away, saying simply “You’ll see.”
For a club as proud as Manchester Thunder, it wouldn’t have been the bronze medal that they were hoping would be hanging round their necks this season, but we know perfectly well what they’re capable of, so it will be exciting to see them come back and challenge again next season.
A closer look at Leeds Rhinos
By Daisey Cotterill
Starting lineup: GS: Rushton GA: Dixon WA: Grierson C: Clarke WD: Hollingworth GD: Oyesola GK: Keenan
This season has been eventful for Dan Ryan’s team, from suffering injuries to three of their starting seven players in Round 2, to being pushed into the top four after recording a positive Covid-19 result in the camp. In their season debut they have made their mark on the Superleague and have shown that a combination of young players, together with more experienced veterans of the game can create a magical team of committed and passionate players. They did not let the reigning champions Manchester Thunder stunt their confidence and came out fighting in the third placed play-off game, once again showing they deserve their place in the league and they can compete with the best.
Sienna Rushton and Rhea Dixon were vital for Leeds Rhinos in this intense game. This combination has been seen earlier on in the season when Donnell Wallam suffered an injury in the second round. From the first quarter, Dixon was sure and confident when taking shots and was a dominant force for her team. Rushton also had a strong start, and Rhinos ended the first quarter with a 92% conversion rate under the post.
The likes of Brie Grierson and Jade Clarke cemented Rhino’s strength in attack, creating a fluid transition through court from defence, where they were winning back possession. Their teamwork and effortless play enabled successful feeds into the circle and their patience meant they were able to remain composed and play the ball around the circle and through attack. Thunder’s defensive circle made it hard for Rhinos, yet the patience shown by their attacking unit enabled them to time the feed accurately and outwit the Thunder defenders. In the pre-match press interview Dan Ryan said he wanted his team to “think our way through the game” and target Thunder “all the way over the court.” His players certainly did this and ensured they pushed Thunder throughout the game.
The defensive players on court for Rhinos had their work cut out going up against the likes of Joyce Mvula and Ellie Cardwell, yet the defensive pressure from Vicki Oyesola and Tuaine Keenan forced movement from Thunder’s attack outside of the circle. At times, Joyce Mvula was the only option open and Rhinos defence were able to apply pressure to the pass or to the play building up to feed in to her.
In the second quarter Thunder began to fight back and tried to take the lead, yet Rhinos’ sheer grit and determination made this specific moment exciting and truly impressive, as they did not allow Thunder to get a large lead and continued to claw back. The feistiness of Rhinos meant that it took until the last quarter for Thunder, the reigning champions, to take hold of the game and extend their lead.
Unfortunately for Rhinos, Thunder stepped up in the second quarter and Mvula became more dominant, as did Kerry Almond during the second half of the game. This meant that Almond derailed Rhino’s attack and they were not able to move the ball around as easily. This was then easily converted by Thunder due to Mvula’s change in play and drive. This was not necessarily due to Rhinos’ faults, Thunder needed to win this game for their pride and the depth they have in their team enabled this to happen. The emotional rollercoaster both teams had been on also played a huge part in the outcome and the impact of the end of the season meant everything was left on court.
And so, in their first ever season as a franchise, with a group of players who for many this was also their first season playing at elite level, Leeds Rhinos took 4th place. It speaks volumes of the culture Rhinos have created that many fans, including the players and staff themselves, were disappointed with a 4th place finish. In his post-match press conference, when asked how proud he was of the players that had never played a final before, Dan Ryan said ‘the players have done brilliantly, they’ve all developed exceptionally well and we’ve created something that’s really quite special. We’ve played for each other’. This sums up the way Rhinos have operated this season, they have played for their teammates and most importantly, played to get the best out of their teammates. Instead of setting up a team of individual talents, Dan Ryan recruited lesser known players, young up and comers who combined with older players who had never quite found their feet. Doing it this way, he knew they would contribute to a team, and in the process has created a team of genuine super stars. This selfless, holistic brand of netball is what has won them so many fans this season, and, in just 32 games, made them one of the most-loved netball teams anywhere in the world.
And so all good things must come to an end…
By Zara Collings
As we head into the off-season, it would be remiss not to acknowledge this season as a huge achievement for all involved; logistically, physically and emotionally. Playing half the season in Studio 001 in Wakefield, before moving the entire league to the Copper Box in London, we have witnessed a slow and cautious alleviation of Covid restrictions that culminated in a Grand Final attended by 1000 lucky fans. Each team has faced their own obstacles, from injuries to Covid cases, all whilst remaining on the road and very much subject to strict protocols. It has been an entire team effort; players, coaches, physios, operational staff, umpires, officials, media, events staff, sponsors and most importantly, fans, have all played their part in ensuring this season was a success. And to describe it as a success, would be an understatement.
Moving forward, much remains uncertain about the future of the Vitality Netball Superleague. From murmurings on social media it appears the annual British Fast Fives All Star tournament will take place at some point throughout the Summer, where hopefully we will see the top eight teams fight it out with long bombs aplenty. This week saw the announcement of a home nations tournament between Scotland, Wales and Ireland to take place at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow in August. Much has been said about the format required to take the League to the next step in its professionalisation and discussions on which will surely continue throughout the Summer. Conversations are ongoing about the number of teams we should allow to compete in this league, and the ongoing impact of Covid-19 continues to be felt around the globe, throwing so much of our Sport into question. Yet, under the most difficult circumstances, netball in the UK has gone from strength to strength, winning new global audiences and continuing to captivate fans of old. And for that, we must all be so proud.
Final Ladder Positions
1st – Loughborough Lightning
2nd – Team Bath
3rd – Manchester Thunder
4th – Leeds Rhinos
5th – Saracens Mavericks
6th – Strathclyde Sirens
7th – Wasps Netball
8th – London Pulse
9th – Severn Stars
10th – Surrey Storm
11th – Celtic Dragons
Stats Leaders for the Year
849 – Mary Cholhok (Lightning)
699 – Joyce Mvula (Thunder)
618 – Kim Borger (Bath)
Most Accurate (min: 10 goals)
93.21% – Kim Borger (Bath)
93.18% – Georgia Rowe (Stars)
92.16% – Rachel Dunn (Wasps)
95 – Layla Guscoth (Bath)
93 – Towera Vinkhumbo (Sirens)
73 – Josie Huckle (Wasps)
60 – Towers Vinkhumbo (Sirens)
45 – Layla Guscoth (Bath)
39 – Alima Priest (Storm)
84 – Funmi Fadoju (Pulse)
78 – Layla Guscoth (Bath)
75 – Kerry Almond (Thunder)
262 – Leah Middleton (Storm)
239 – Towera Vinkhumbo (Sirens)
239 – Kerry Almond (Thunder)
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