Collingwood Magpies came into the 2017 season as favourites to take the inaugural title.
Their squad boasted six current or former Australian Diamonds representatives, with goal attack the only position where they lacked international experience.
But their first season saw them fall short of expectations. Their Round 1 game against the Melbourne Vixens was a surprise loss and they struggled to find the form throughout the season many thought they were capable of. A one-goal loss to the Giants quickly bundled them out of the finals.
Many commentators suspected that team culture could have been the issue preventing the Magpies from achieving their potential. With too many leaders on court, the players were struggling to combine and basic errors and miscommunication saw them beaten by less-fancied opponents on multiple occasions.
Madi Robinson has been maintained as captain and is joined in the 2018 leadership group by Shae Brown, Kim Ravaillion and Caitlin Thwaites.
The Magpies have managed to keep their list of superstars and added Erin Bell to the squad – who will surely be the favoured starter in the goal attack position.
Bell is an experienced, dual World Cup-winner and her willingness to go to post will relieve some of the Pies’ woes in the shooting circle. If an effective connection with Thwaites can be formed (with whom she has played with in the Diamonds environment previously), they could be a force to be reckoned with.
Thwaites was the Magpies’ best player of 2017. With none of her shooting partners performing at their best, she was a safe pair of hands in the circle and had her best season to date. She shot the more than 75% of the teams goals and dealt exceptionally well with the constant chopping and changing in the goal attack position.
Alice Teague-Neeld could also feature in the shooting circle. While she struggled last season, she showed some patches of brilliance, particularly defensively. Given a chance to grow into the position, and with experienced heads around her, Teague-Neeld could play a cameo role to change things up in the attack end.
In the midcourt, both Robinson and Ravaillion are just back from the Commonwealth games, after 2017 seasons where both, at various stages, looked out of sorts.
Their struggles often came from hesitation in passing, particularly when opposing teams were playing zone defence to disrupt their second-phase. Both players are formidable at their best and key to their attacking play will be building strong combinations with Bell and Thwaites and letting the ball go.
Ash Brazill had an excellent 2017 season, enjoying an injury-free year for the first time in years.
Her vertical leap (which has no doubt improved since playing AFLW) and anticipation saw her pick up a lot of ball. Her pre-season has been hampered by a hamstring injury, which saw her only able to play two games for the Collingwood AFLW team, but hopefully her body is on track for another great season.
Shae Brown is far too good a player to be sitting on the bench. Filling in at goal attack last year, Brown’s experience and versatility was clear. Her frantic style, particularly when coming off the bench, is nerve wracking to watch, but her differing flair could be pivotal if the attacking end struggles once more. Brown could again be an impact player, but it is difficult to see her cementing a starting spot.
Sharni Layton is still on comeback from a mental health break which saw her miss the Commonwealth Games. Her bravery in speaking out about her time away from the game and the time she put into recovery will hopefully see her come back stronger than ever. The addition of Rob Wright as a specialist defensive coach will reap rewards for Layton, who worked particularly well with him in her time at the NSW Swifts.
April Brandley has come off some solid performances at the Commonwealth Games. Her 2017 season was relatively quiet, but she was able to step up when Layton was having less of an effect.
A star on the rise, Matilda Garrett has been elevated from a training partner to the squad of ten. Garrett has played much of her netball at goal defence, representing Australia at last years’ World Youth Cup and could see court time in either defensive circle position.
The Pies will be disappointed if they do not make the Grand Final, given the high calibre of the players. That said, season 2017 aptly demonstrated that big name players mean nothing if there is not a positive team culture in place.
The addition of Rob Wright could be the difference, as could the shooting prowess of Erin Bell. However, the real change needs to come from the players functioning better as a team, rather than a set of immensely talented individuals.
2018 team list
Madi Robinson (c) WA/C
Erin Bell GA/GS
April Brandley GD/WD/GK
Ash Brazill C/WD
Shae Brown C/WD/WA/GA
Matilda Garrett GK/GD
Sharni Layton GK/GD/WD
Kim Ravaillion C/WD/WA
Alice Teague-Neeld GA/GS
Caitlin Thwaites GS/GA
Head coach: Kristy Keppich-Birrell
Assistant coaches: Rob Wright and Cathy Fellows
Training partners: Cody Lange, Sharni Lambden, Mary Livesy, Mel Bragg, Vanessa Augustini, Kelsie Rainbow