Contributors – Zara Collings, Eve Cobbett, Iona St Joseph, Rona Hunnisett and Ian Harkin
Photographers – Morgan Harlow and Ben Lumley
NS SCOREBOARD – VNSL Semi-Finals
By Zara Collings
A year of preparation, hard-work, challenges both physical and mental, drive, determination and sacrifice and it all came down to this. The semi-finals for the Vitality Netball Superleague have given us our 2021 finalists: Team Bath and Loughborough Lightning. Two incredibly experienced outfits, decked with international stars and future heroes will take to court one last time, to win the ultimate prize. They could not have had two more different semi-final experiences, with Loughborough Lightning dominating a depleted Rhinos side, securing their place with a 20 goal winning margin and Team Bath having to dig deep to overcome a relentless Manchester Thunder by just 3, ending 41-38.
Despite their impressive goal difference, Loughborough Lightning Head Coach Sara Bayman still believes her side have areas to tighten up ahead of the Grand Final. She was “disappointed with how [they] started in the first quarter.. as took a little bit of time for us to settle.” Much of this however, can be attributed to the tenacity with which Leeds Rhinos came out the blocks. Perhaps owing to the two weeks spent in isolation after a positive Covid-19 test result within the camp, they struggled to maintain this level of energy and focus for the following three quarters. Without fan-favourite Donnell Wallam, Rhinos struggled at times in the shooting circle and were unable to capitalise on the ball they did receive, shooting at a shaky 69%. Heading into tomorrow’s match against Manchester Thunder, Rhinos Head Coach Dan Ryan will be looking to tighten up this area to ensure his young shooters in Sienna Rushton and Rhea Dixon are able to compete with the experience of Kerry Almond and Emma Dovey. Conversely, Karen Grieg’s shooters in Joyce Mvula and Eleanor Cardwell averaged 84% accuracy under the post. Dan will also be looking to cement his Wing Defence position, after trying three different defenders in Fi Toner, Emily Hollingworth and Jade Clarke against Lightning’s Hannah Joseph. Whilst Caroline O’Hanlon will be a very different customer to Joseph, piling on the pressure through court is essential for Rhinos to allow Goal Keeper Tuaine Keenan enough time to adjust her footwork and set up her defensive play. Rhinos will have to contend with a hurting Manchester Thunder, whose emotions were clear to see after their narrow defeat to Team Bath. Without the pressure of defending their title, expect Thunder to be ruthless in defence and fearless in attack.
For Loughborough Lightning, they will be hoping that they can recapture the form that saw them take a nineteen goal victory over Bath, less than a week ago. In that match, Bath were unable to break the bond between Lightning shooting pair of Mary Cholhok and Ella Clark, which ultimately won them the game. Only time will tell if Anna Stembridge and her side learned enough from this to reverse their fortunes so quickly. As always, the match up through the middle of Roses teammates Guthrie and Panagarry will be feisty and after a quiet game today from Bath’s Wing Attack Jess Shaw, Beth Cobden will be looking to expose this area of weakness in the Bath attack. Stembridge however, remains adamant that losing to Loughborough in the last round of the regular season is exactly the preparation her side needed ahead of the Grand Final matchup. “That’s what you want, when you talk about great championship winning sides … you want to be put under pressure” she said in the press conference when asked about Bath’s recent run of poor form. Being exposed by Loughborough, when it almost didn’t matter in terms of the result, allowed Bath to fix their weaknesses heading into crunch time. It will be up to Loughborough to prove they had also kept a few cards close to their chest and bring something different to the table on game day.
Netball Scoop’s Player of the Semis:
Despite often being classed as the most underrated position on court, the Wing Defenders really stepped up in the semi-finals and two out of the four starting Wing Defence’s made it to our list. The fast-paced and high intensity of these matches was often down to the work of these defenders, clogging up the space and blocking the attackers vision, leaving it all open for their teammates to come through for the snazzy interception.
Leeds Rhinos: Whilst it was obviously not the result Leeds Rhinos were aiming for, there were some standout performances within the Yorkshire side. Rhea Dixon really stepped up in the absence of Donnell Wallam, bringing creativity and flair to the attacking end and shouldering the extra responsibility in the circle with her young partner in Sienna Rushton. Whilst the accuracy of Dixon’s shot was certainly impacted by the extra work she was doing out of the circle, we were thoroughly impressed with how she commanded the additional responsibility and led her attacking her.
Loughborough Lightning: Off the back of winning the Vitality Player of the Year award, Beth Cobden made an excellent opening case for player of the finals too. She was a pest. Plain and simple. From the very first centre pass she smothered Rhino’s Wing Attack Brie Grierson, keeping her high in the attacking third and used her extendable arms to put pressure over every pass. Timing is a key part of Cobden’s game and the pressure applied around the circle edge allows her to get a sneaky hand into plenty of ball. Pleasingly, Cobden is able to apply all this pressure without attracting the ire of the umpires and had another clean game with only six penalties.
Manchester Thunder: Playing most of the match in Wing Defence, Laura Malcolm did a wealth of work on Bath’s Rachel Shaw, who had one of her quietest games of the season. As a utility midcourt player, Malcolm offers a wealth of attacking and defensive nouse, which allows her to ensure she is always an option on the line for the reset. Picking up three interceptions and one deflection, Malcolm played a key role in establishing Thunder’s defensive pressure.
Team Bath: It was a very close call for our Team Bath pick, as there were some outstanding performances across the court. Kim Borger looked back to her best, with the ‘claw’ out in full force as she was solid under the post shooting at 97%. Imogen Allison also had one of her best games ever, causing chaos in the Thunder attacking line with her stealthy intercepts and deflections. But if Imogen Allison is the student, there is no greater master than Serena Guthrie, who once again showed us why she is one of the most beloved player’s across the globe. She was involved in every play, both attacking and defensive and the passion and energy she brought to court lifted and powered the players around her. Another classic Guthrie midcourt masterclass.
1ST SEMI FINAL: LOUGHBOROUGH LIGHTNING 58 def LEEDS RHINOS 38
Match Report by Rona Hunnisett
And so the 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague season came down to the final four teams. After an unpredictable competition, Leeds Rhinos – the season’s surprise package – emerged from two weeks of COVID-19 quarantine to take on the table topping Loughborough Lightning, a team packed with talent which, as yet, has never managed to lift the overall title. Could Loughborough go all the way this year, or would Leeds, despite missing inspirational shooter Donnell Wallam (back in Australia, quarantining ahead of her grandmother’s funeral), continue to upset the existing netball order and take their place in their first grand final?
From the first whistle, it was clear that Leeds Rhinos had come to play and were not overawed by the array of international talent lined up against them. Sienna Rushton, starting at GS, was not overawed by the occasion, and her interplay with Rhea Dixon, which allowed the GA to run wide on the baseline and then drive to the post for a simple feed and shot, kept Loughborough’s heads turning and the scoreboard moving in Leeds favour. Despite some textbook attacking play from Hannah Joseph and Nat Panagarry for Loughborough, patiently working the ball to the circle edge for a simple feed in to the towering Cholhok, Leeds stayed in touch, and led 14-13 at the first break. Could Leeds be writing a new chapter in their fairytale first season?
Loughborough upped the pressure from the very first whistle of the second quarter, hassling and harrying Leeds into fast passes, missed connections and mistakes. WA Hannah Joseph, who was a bundle of energy all game, kept pushing to the circle edge and placing pinpoint feeds to Cholhok, exploiting the height mismatch between her and Leeds’ valiant GK Tuane Keenan who, despite her fast feet and excellent read on the ball, could only watch as another pass dropped into the waiting hands of the Ugandan shooter. At the other end of the court, Dixon used some clever give and go tactics to draw her defender wide before driving at the post, with Rushton happy to clear the space, but Panagarry and Cobden were soon wise to the move. Both the Loughborough midcourters started to push their opponents away from the ball carrier, giving May and Odeogberin time to cut in and pick off the resulting lifted pass. With Cholhok now in full flow, the lead had stretched to eight by half time (31-23) and Leeds were starting to look rattled.
In a game of this quality, eight goals can be made up in a matter of minutes, but Loughborough had not intention of easing the pressure on their Leeds opponents and with player of the match Sam May starting to assert her authority over Rushton, Loughborough started to force mistakes from the Leeds side. Despite the urgings of Jade Clarke, Leeds’ young and relatively inexperienced frontline began to make errors which Loughborough capitalised on, and despite an injury to Cholhok which forced her to the bench for the second half of the quarter, Lightning continued to pile on the pressure with Clark, now at GS, sinking goals seemingly at will from anywhere in the circle. There were still moments to savour from the Rhinos side, with their stifling defensive pressure frequently forcing Loughborough to move back to the centre third to reset attacking moves, but the fire seemed to have gone out of their challenge, and Loughborough capitalised to lead 46-30 at three quarter time.
For the final period, Loughborough coach Sara Francis Bayman emptied her bench, to give key team members a rest ahead of the challenge of tomorrow’s final, but the impetus remained with her Loughborough side. May, now at GD, was an ever-present threat to the Leeds front line, who battled valiantly but could find no solution to the Australian’s close marking and the long reach of Alice Harvey, now introduced at GK. Williams and Nicholls, substitutes for Panagarry and Cobden, continued to hustle the Leeds attack, and it was clear that Rhinos needed a steady head and clear target in the goal circle to steady their ship. Loughborough ran out seemingly easy 58-38 winners but the victory was hard-won, and Leeds can hold their heads up high after a performance that showed they are a team to be reckoned with.
Loughborough as a unit were simply too slick, too well drilled and too confident in their connections on court for Leeds to make a significant breakthrough. Individually, it would be easy to home in on the shooting performance of Mary Cholhok, but the real stars of the show were Hannah Joseph and Nat Panagarry, who controlled the Loughborough attack masterfully. Their feeding from the circle edge was pinpoint accurate, but both were also comfortable sighting the long ball in on occasion.
Loughborough’s connections, whichever line up was on court, were simply too strong for Leeds today. It was clear that Francis-Bayman’s tactic of introducing all her squad throughout the season is paying dividends, with no interruptions in the game structure despite the introduction of new personnel. Individually, May and Cobden were persistent nuisances to the Leeds front line, tipping and turning over numerous balls destined for the shorter Dixon and Grierson and that disruption created uncertainty among the Leeds attacking line..
What do Rhinos need to work on before tomorrow?
When Leeds sighted the first-time ball into space, they matched Loughborough for speed and kept the scoreboard moving – but they seemed to lose confidence and focus as the game wore on. They need to be positive and have belief in their abilities – as the scoreline blew out, their body language showed they were beaten. The experienced heads of the Lightning side took full advantage.
Key things for Lightning heading into the Grand Final?
For Loughborough, the passage to their first grand final win would seem to be “more of the same”. Cholhok needs to remain calm on the shot, as she can be guilty of rushing when under pressure, but her interplay with Ella Clark is still a key strength for the side. Loughborough’s swarming, smothering defensive structure saw them pull numerous interceptions in today, and will be needed tomorrow if they are to take their inaugural title, whoever the opposition.
Lightning: GS Cholhok, GA Clark, WA Joseph, C Panagarry, WD Cobden, GD Odeogberin, GK May
Rhinos: GS Rushton, GA Dixon, WA Grierson, C Clarke, WD Toner, GD Oyesola, GK Keenan
Umpires: Alison Harrison and Kate Stephenson
PLAYER OF THE MATCH: Sam May (Loughborough Lightning)
2ND SEMI FINAL: TEAM BATH NETBALL 41 def MANCHESTER THUNDER 38
Match report by Iona St Joseph
In the second of the day’s two semi finals, third place Manchester Thunder take on Team Bath. Both teams finished the season on 51 points along with top of the table Loughborough Lightning, with just the goal difference proving the difference between the three sides, so it promised to be an exciting matchup.
Current title holders Manchester Thunder have performed consistently this season with stars across the court. With Joyce Mvula and Eleanor Cardwell in the shooting end, we know they can score, but it has to be the combination of Emma Dovey and Kerry Almond who need to shut down that Team Bath attack to take the win.
The most decorated team in Super League history, Team Bath will be looking to have the title back in their trophy cabinet for the first time in eight years. Kim Borger and Sophie Drakford-Lewis have delivered for Bath this season, and with England Roses captain Serena Guthrie working tirelessly throughout the court delivering the ball to her shooters alongside Rachel Shaw in Wing Attack, we’re all aware what they’re capable of.
It’s Bath who have had the upper hand so far this season, winning the previous two encounters between these two teams. The first game was a whitewash with Bath winning 60 – 35, but Manchester Thunder proved to be a thorn in their side the second time round, losing by just three goals 41 – 44.
With a number of England Roses peppered throughout both sides, it promised to be a real treat for netball fans.
It was a slow start from Team Bath, with an unforced error from Kim Borger and a held ball from Serena Guthrie turning over their first two centre passes. Thunder capitalised, finding Mvula and Cardwell easily at the beginning of the first quarter and a couple of tips from an in-form Malcolm also helped give Thunder an early lead. It didn’t take long though for the formidable Bath defence to find their way into the game. The trio of Eboni Usoro-Brown, Layla Guscoth and Imogen Allison stepped up, shutting down the access into the circle, turning the score around and putting Bath ahead by two at quarter time.
We knew this was going to be a good game, and it did not disappoint! The second quarter was a battle of the Wing Defences, with Laura Malcolm and Imogen Allison seemingly trying to outdo each other for tips and intercepts. Both teams picked up fantastic ball, but it was Bath who were able to hold on and convert, giving them the edge in the second quarter. A few uncharacteristic hospital passes from O’Hanlon into Mvula and a quieter quarter that we’re used to seeing from Cardwell presented opportunities for the Bath defensive end to capitalise on. Guscoth continued to step up for her side, hassling the Thunder attack and getting under their skin. Her energy and dedication to go after every loose ball is paying off, and the Thunder attack looked in danger of letting the frustration get to them.
Thunder Captain Emma Dovey said at half time, “We need to keep grinding, we need to keep working hard” and she was absolutely right, if Thunder were going to make the final they needed to step up the work rate in the second half.
Despite a better start to the quarter from Thunder, it was more of the same from Bath. When the Manchester side started to find an easier route to goal, it wasn’t long before the Bath defence adapted to shut it down. That, combined with the reliable shooting of Borger and Drakeford-Lewis, meant Thunder were unable to catch up and frustration seemed like it was getting to them, particularly Cardwell and O’Hanlon.
With just three goals in it going into the final quarter, this was the perfect game from the neutral. In an effort to try and mix things up, the first changes of the game came from Thunder, Malcolm moving into the middle, Elia McCormick coming into Wing Defence and Amy Carter heading to the bench. It wasn’t long though before Malcolm moved back into wing defence, O’Hanlon shifted into the middle, and Carter came back on into Wing Attack.
At points throughout the game it felt like we were on the cusp of a momentum shift from Thunder, but they just couldn’t quite get there and threw away much needed chances at key moments. Serena Guthrie really stepped up in the final quarter, bringing the ball down court and really causing havoc amongst the Thunder shooting end.
It came down to the wire, with Thunder getting back within one goal at one point in the fourth quarter, but it was just too untidy for them to turn it around. A full-court performance from the seven Bath players means it will be them taking on Loughborough Lightning with a well earned spot in tomorrow’s final.
This was such a good game of netball because the scoreline was so close, but it was Team Bath that kept their cool and seemed to have the upper hand, particularly in the second half. It felt like they had faith in their game throughout, something which hadn’t shown in their last couple of games which saw losses to Mavericks and Lightning.
Borger and Drakeford-Lewis are so reliable under the post, and they stepped up once again today, adapting to what we know is a strong Thunder defence. Their shooting was at its best, with Borger slotting home 32/33 goals at a whopping 97%, and their movement around the circle really making it hard for the Thunder defenders.
For me though, it was the Bath defence that really won them this game. Usoro-Brown, Guscoth and Allison performed for the full 48 minutes, and with player of the match Serena Guthrie backing them up in the middle of the court, it was a clinical performance.
Bath stuck to their processes and stayed calm under pressure; they by no means had the perfect game, but they seemed to keep cool and believe in themselves. By contrast, you could feel Thunder’s frustration at points and Bath’s consistent performance kept them just out of reach.
What do Thunder need to work on before tomorrow?
It was interesting to see that Cardwell shouldered the bulk of Thunder’s shots in this game, scoring 20/24 at 82%. Coach Karen Atkinson said her side only started putting the high balls into Mvula in the last quarter, so that will be something they’ll be keen to change in tomorrow’s game.
Leeds Rhinos will be watching that game and looking at where Bath managed to unpick Thunder’s attack, so I think the Manchester side need to be wary of defensive pressure on Cardwell and dogged marking of O’Hanlon.
Key things for Bath heading into the Grand Final?
Whilst Bath undoubtedly deserved the win today, there were a number of unforced errors that they will need to tighten up on. Serena Guthrie can be guilty of flirting with that three seconds on the ball, and we saw her pulled up for it several times in today’s match.
At the end of the game, it felt like they left it all out on court today, so it will be key that they put this game behind them and focus on what they need to do in the final.
Thunder: GS Mvula, GA Cardwell, WA O’Hanlon, C Carter, WD Malcolm, GD Dovey, GK Almond
Bath: GS Borger, GA Drakeford-Lewis, WA Shaw, C Guthrie, WD Allison, GD Guscoth, GK Usoro-Brown
Umpires: Gary Burgess and Louise Travis
PLAYER OF THE MATCH: Serena Guthrie (Team Bath)
Sunday, June 27
3:00pm – Playoff for 3rd: Manchester Thunder v Leeds Rhinos
5:00pm – Grand Final: Loughborough Lightning v Team Bath