“We treat every game like a grand final.”
And so it was for Abbey McCulloch’s NSW Swifts, falling all over one another as if they were the new Suncorp Super Netball premiers, when they took a one-goal win in the last seconds over the Queensland Firebirds.
In what promised to be a huge showdown between traditional rivals, both teams wanted to start well to make up for a disappointing 2017 Super Netball season. Queensland had placed fifth, while the Swifts were sixth with a paltry three wins.
Back from national duties and Commonwealth Games medals, star shooters Romelda Aiken and Helen Housby lead their sides from the front. However, it was rookie Sophie Garbin that rescued the Swifts when she came on during the third quarter, fronting legendary keeper and returning new mother, Laura Geitz.
The Swifts hit the front half way through the final quarter and held on to record a jubilant 54-53 victory.
Housby started with a rare miss, as did Aiken, but the Jamaican in her usual fashion snaffled the rebound and opened Queensland’s account. Sydney began to ride the crowd energy and pulled out to an 11-8 lead. The difference was the availability of respective goal attacks, Gretel Tippett with only two goals in first ten minutes, compared with Housby’s five.
Aiken used a variety of moves, pure elevation at times and more of a stretch and split at others. She stayed in strong position in the circle rather than assisting her midcourt and the feeders were steady in their approach, until Sarah Klau made a phenomenal tip to gain possession when Caitlyn Nevins released the ball too low. Klau and Maddy Turner were both challenging the receipt of the high ball from Aiken and also scrapping well on the lower passes.
The Firebirds employed a zone defence and Geitz benefitted with a simple take near the transverse line. Her team had a few smooth passages to goal for Aiken, clawed in the three goal deficit to 11-all, when the Swifts called a tactical time-out.
At centre, Maddy Proud dominated the feeding. Taking advantage of her experience over Cassidy, she was bolting into the forward line and getting the ball into the uncanny fingertips of Sam Wallace. Paige Hadley was working hard, but Queensland captain Gabi Simpson prevented any circle-edge position or quick-release feeds.
Housby, coming off a fantastic tournament on the Gold Coast, rotated the circle and cut the baseline with blistering speed. Her input of 5/6 in the first six minutes of the second quarter was vital, as the reputation and skill of Geitz made Wallace less of an option.
The Caribbean import had only one goal when the Swifts called a timeout after eight minutes in the second quarter, in order to swap Proud and Hadley in the midcourt. Immediately on resumption, Tippett scored with a stylish lay-up off a penalty against Klau, giving the visitors a 24-19 advantage. The Swifts shooters started to go off the boil, still taking shots, but struggling to find the net or the rebound.
Aiken was showing composure and experience, ever-available for the lightning jump-pass from Tippett, craftily holding Klau off court with her arm and rebounding almost all her misses. It was a contrast from the Swifts – Wallace even missing a penalty on the half-time buzzer with Geitz out. She had only scored 3/6 in the second term, with the home side trailing 23-29 at the main break.
Swifts sought a new spark, changing their midcourt and removing a frustrated McCulloch, with Claire O’Brien coming on at wing attack. Rookie head coach Briony Akle also introduce Kate Eddy at goal defence for her first Super Netball game.
The Firebirds, full of confidence, left their line unchanged. The Swifts continued to flounder, especially Wallace, making passing errors, or having the ball riskily fed to her over Geitz.
With the home team star shooter struggling, the stage was set for another debutant to enter in Sophie Garbin.
A blood injury to Proud required her to be subbed off and with a rejigged midcourt for the Swifts, Garbin also got her chance. She moved off her hold at the right time and took advantage of a quick release from O’Brien, hitting her first fifteen goals in a row.
The Swifts lifted, exuberance and sticking to a basic game plan proving the difference. The ball moved sweetly and Garbin was more traditional and solid in her positioning.
Queensland coach Roselee Jencke tried to stem this flow by putting Kim Jenner on to partner Geitz, with Hinchcliffe heading to the bench.
The match ran goal-for-goal early in the last quarter, with Tippett called for stepping after a few suspect landings. Housby worked well on the centre pass, holding her arm up against Jenner but still getting possession via a penalty, and O’Brien and Hadley had a slick connection to Garbin.
Klau got oh so close to the lobs into Aiken, but failed to grab the ball – it was left to Aiken to be judged out-of-court on an ambitious feed to get the defensive gain. The crowd came alive as the Swifts brought the deficit back to 46-44 with 10 minutes remaining.
It almost seemed like the Firebirds came to a standstill, as Sydney shot seven goals in a row to lead for the first time since the 10-minute mark of the opening term. The crowd rose with every play, especially the stunning intercept on the transverse line from Housby.
With five minutes left the Swifts had the margin was down to one. Aiken implored her team to steady and lead by example, pulling in amazing balls when her team was stuck and scored 10 goals at 100% for the term. With 3:30 left the Firebirds regained the lead.
Fans screamed in desperation for every defensive play from Eddy and Klau, while umpire James Matthews, in particular, kept calm control over incredibly passionate tight contests.
With 40 seconds left, locked at 53-all, Abbey McCulloch took an exceptional intercept which she flicked on to Housby. When Garbin was contacted by Geitz with 15 seconds to go, it was all over – she sank the shot and the home team celebrated as if they’d just won the Super Netball grand final.
NSW Swifts 54 def Queensland Firebirds 53
(12-15, 23-29, 37-42, 54-53)
Player of the match: Sophie Garbin (Swifts)
Wallace 12/17 71%
Housby 24/31 77%
Garbin 18/19 95%
Aiken 45/51 88%
Tippett 8/11 73%
Laura Geitz (Firebirds) – 5 intercepts, 3 rebounds, 16 penalties
Abbey McCulloch (Swifts) – 3 intercepts, 12 penalties
Sarah Klau (Swifts) – 2 intercepts, 26 penalties
Tara Hinchcliffe (Firebirds) – 1 intercept, 2 rebounds, 8 penalties, 1 turnover
GS Sam Wallace
GA Helen Housby
WA Paige Hadley
C Maddy Proud
WD Abbey McCulloch
GD Maddy Turner
GK Sarah Klau
GS Romelda Aiken
GA Gretel Tippett
WA Caitlyn Nevins
C Mahalia Cassidy
WD Gabi Simpson
GD Tara Hinchcliffe
GK Laura Geitz
Cover image: Danny Dalton