Collingwood Magpies have restored confidence in their championship credentials with a win over the in-form Queensland Firebirds.
Queensland entered the game as favourites after their impressive win over ladder leaders West Coast Fever in the previous round. Meanwhile, after Collingwood’s underwhelming start to the season, this match was a must-win to stay in touch with the top four.
Collingwood coach Kristy Keppich-Birrell decided to swing the axe on two of her most experienced players. The decision to start Shae Brown over Kimberley Ravaillion was not unexpected; Brown has made quality cameos when given the opportunity and has long threatened to snatch the centre bib from Ravaillion.
What came out of the blue was Keppich-Birrell’s decision to bench marquee defender Sharni Layton, with youngster Matilda Garrett getting the starting bib against Romelda Aiken in her 150th match.
April Brandley opened proceedings with an intercept, and a brilliant baseline drive from Erin Bell gave Collingwood the early lead.
In a dominant quarter, Bell seemed determined to contradict recent criticism of her shooting accuracy and prove herself as the Magpies GA solution. Tara Hinchliffe was giving her too much space, particularly along the baseline, to zip around the circle and shoot with her trademark swish.
Bell became the go-to player, with Madi Robinson not only finding her but actively seeking her out. Their give-and-go on the circle edge was seamless, with Caitlin Thwaites offering the strong, flexible hold.
An offensive contact against Aiken gave the Magpies another opportunity to set their team up by five goals. Collingwood were playing fast netball, with long, confident cross court passes. In the circle, they were setting up space and prepared to wait for it to open up, rather than forcing the ball in.
The Firebirds were finding it trickier, and even once the ball was in the circle, Aiken’s shots were tentative and flat. Luckily, when they bounced off the front rim, they landed right back in her own hands.
Gabi Simpson snatched a captain’s intercept with five minutes on the clock, and the Firebirds recovered late to finish the quarter just one goal behind.
Shooting statistics were telling an early story: Bell’s accuracy had skyrocketed to 90% as she shared the goaling spread evenly with Thwaites. In comparison, Aiken was shouldering most of the Firebirds load at 71%.
Firebirds coach Roselee Jencke tried to curb Bell’s influence by switching Kim Jenner into GD, and merely three minutes into the quarter called a timeout to bring Jemma Mi Mi into C. Both teams were scoring goal for goal, playing it safe. A stepping call against Brown put the Firebirds in front, but Collingwood called their own timeout to halt the momentum.
The Magpies returned determined to win the ball, and pulled back the lead. A tip and intercept from Ash Brazill was sealed with Bell’s swish. Then Garrett got her first win, causing Aiken to fumble. The late push meant Collingwood entered the main break with a four-goal advantage.
Both teams were in need of a ball winner to break the back and forth play. Laura Geitz was starting to look hungry for intercepts, but Jenner was too busy trying to blanket Bell’s influence. The Magpies defenders were making the pathway to goal tricky for the Firebirds, but they needed to force turnovers, and their trusted ball winner was sitting on the bench …
Jencke revamped her line-up to start the second half, but the changes didn’t have an immediate impact. The margin hovered around five goals before a Brazill intercept lifted the Magpies. Bell’s perfectly timed drives were finished with a flourish.
Collingwood were utilising triangles to their advantage, whereas the Firebirds were passing in straight lines – either from the transverse to goal, or across the circle.
The Firebirds were floundering as the margin stretched to seven goals. The team had seemed complacent all match, but now the game was getting away from them. Geitz and Simpson, the players who the Firebirds often look to for inspiration in close matches, rallied to claw the margin back to three.
Amidst this assault, Keppich-Birrell made the move to bring a revved-up Sharni Layton into the game, to the delight of the crowd. An intercept to Simpson levelled the scores once again, rewarding an energetic run from the Firebirds which undid all of the Magpies hard work in just half a quarter.
Ravaillion was brought on to give Collingwood some fresh legs to run out the last quarter, where the game had tightened up and the margin refused to budge beyond two goals. Aiken was having to muscle her way through Layton to receive the long feeds into the circle. Thwaites was missing shots, but gathering her own rebounds, rather than letting the Firebirds capitalise on any inaccuracy.
Halfway through the quarter, Layton got her moment, plucking the desperately needed intercept for Collingwood. Thwaites made it count. With the margin locked at three goals, it felt like the Magpies had slight control. Hinchliffe and Geitz were double teaming Thwaites, but allowing Bell to roam the space in the outer circle where she’d proved she could score.
It was Brandley who eventually picked up the game-sealing defensive rebound, securing a five-goal win for Collingwood.
The Firebirds will rue their early complacency; they spent too long playing in cruise control, and when the game needed to be won, no one stood up to win the ball. The bye will allow time to analyse the loss before facing the fast-improving Thunderbirds, but the Firebirds should take confidence from their positive start to the season.
Collingwood will need to sustain their confidence over the bye, after which they face the imposing Giants. When previous games have gone down to the wire, Collingwood’s team of stars have sometimes tried to drag their side over the line as individuals.
This game reinforced that when the Magpies players trust and bounce off each other, they are far more fluid in their connections, and a far better team than their current seventh position suggests.
Collingwood Magpies 67 def. Queensland Firebirds 62
(17-16, 18-15, 15-19, 17-12)
Player of the match: Erin Bell (Magpies)
Thwaites 34/40 85%
Bell 33/39 85%
Aiken 42/51 82%
Tippett 20/21 95%
Brazill (Magpies) 3
Brandley (Magpies) 2
Simpson (Firebirds) 2
Geitz (Firebirds) 2
Centre pass receives
Robinson (Magpies) 34
Tippett (Firebirds) 27
Bell (Magpies) 18
Nevins (Firebirds) 14
Brandley (Magpies) 3
Brazill (Magpies) 2
Bell (Magpies) 2
Cassidy (Firebirds) 2
Starting line ups
Changes: Q3 GK Layton, Q4 C Ravaillion
Changes: Q2 GD Jenner C Mi Mi, Q3 C Cassidy WA Mi Mi GD Hinchliffe, Q4 WA Nevins C Mi Mi