Southern Steel have claimed consecutive ANZ Premiership titles with a thrilling come-from-behind win over Central Pulse.
Pulse had the better of their opponents across the regular season, having accounted for Steel 62-51 in Round 1 and 71-40 in Round 4 (the biggest margin in 2018), before Steel got one back with a 51-47 victory in Round 9.
It was also a re-match of last years’ final, but with both sides having had significant personnel changes in the off-season.
Steel bookends Jhaniele Fowler (now at West Coast Fever) and Jane Watson (Tactix) departed, while Pulse took on a whole new look without the services of Cat Tuivaiti (Adelaide Thunderbirds), Phoenix Karaka (Northern Mystics) and England import Sara Bayman (Sirens).
This ANZ Premiership had been the year of the young guns, with quite a few starting seven players completing their first full-year in the league.
The home side looked the better of the two early, thanks largely to their automatic qualification to the Final after finishing on top of the ladder after the regular season. They made use of their energy from the extra three days break.
Pulse jumped out to an 8-4 advantage midway through the opening term, as Steel gave away a highly-uncharacteristic nine turnovers in the first fifteen minutes.
Steel’s strike shooter Jennifer O’Connell was also well-held by Sulu Fitzpatrick, contributing just 14 goals in the first half.
The margin blew out to 11 goals just five minutes into the second term, on the back of an 8-0 run from the Pulse.
From there, the steadiness and ease with which Pulse had generated their lead slowly vanished.
It was a misfired pass from wing attack Whitney Souness that gave the Steel the sniff they needed to start their comeback.
Aaliyah Dunn was the next to turn over the ball via an offensive contact under the goal ring, before Steel defender Courtney Elliot snaffled an intercept off an Ameliaranne Ekenasio pass. Suddenly the Pulse’s lead had shrunk back to four goals.
Tiana Metuarau entered the game for Ekenasio for the third term, in a period where the margin swung between three and six goals. In an attempt to stem the Steel flow, the more experienced Ekenasio was brought back on in the last quarter.
For the first ten minutes of the final term, it looked like Pulse were going to be victorious. But with less than four minutes on the clock, and trailing by six goals, Southern Steel produced an almighty comeback.
At first Pulse centre Claire Kersten threw away a centre pass, Steel defender Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit then tipped a ball to Wendy Frew intended for Dunn, before a controversial held ball on Karin Burger stripped Pulse of the ball once more and the toppling was all but complete.
Steel’s turnover conversion increased from 40% to 86% from the first half to the second, while the Pulse dropped from 58% to 25%. In a game that came down to treasuring possession, the home side just couldn’t make it count when they needed to.
Pulse also gave away 41 penalties to 23 after half time, a reversal of the second half scoreline, which Steel took 30-23. O’Connell ramped up her effort netting 26/27, on her way to 40/44 at 91% for the match.
Pulse were left stranded on 53 goals, like they were in the 2017 ANZ Premiership Grand Final. And much like last year, the score just wasn’t enough.
Not only did Southern Steel complete the back-to-back fairytale, but were able to send off captain Wendy Frew in perfect fashion.
Southern Steel 54 def Central Pulse 53
(10-16, 24-30, 38-42, 54-53)
Player of the Match: Gina Crampton (Steel)
O’Connell 40/44 91%
Selby-Rickit 14/18 78%
Dunn 32/35 91%
Ekenasio 17/25 68%
Metuarau 4/4 100%