In any other premier sporting competition, the Magpies defeat of reigning premiers Sunshine Coast Lightning in the first round would be an objective measure of their success in rebuilding the 2018 team. But the 2019 SSN competition is a strange beast. Club loyalty – both from the players, and to the players – is in particularly short supply for the new franchises. Collingwood’s starting seven contained only three returning players from last year: April Brandley, Ash Brazill and Kim Ravaillion.
And while Lightning had six of their grand final starting seven on court, two of those were Geva Mentor and Kelsey Browne prancing around in black and white. On court in this game were 12 current or former national representatives from six netballing nations, yet Collingwood’s home crowd was noticeably thin and subdued, an indication that there is some extra work for this club to do in brand rebuilding with their enormous potential supporter base.
The major surprise in the starting line-ups was that Lightning Coach Noeline Taurua left Ugandan recruit Peace Proscovia, an exciting replacement for Caitlin Bassett, on the bench for the start of her first SSN game. Cara Koenen teamed up at GS with Stephanie Wood at GA in the Lightning goal circle. Koenen received her first pass with a broad grin, but Mentor soon set about deconstructing the young shooter’s holding game with her patented body-slam-look-angelic defence. Lightning’s first attacking foray resulted in a defensive gain for the Magpies when Koenen gave away an offensive contact penalty to her opponent, and the writing was on the wall for a rugged game for Lightning’s new shooting circle.
Mentor slotted in beautifully to the defensive combination of Brandley, Brazill and Ravaillion. The Magpies employed a defensive strategy of blocking the new Lightning feeding combination on the transverse line, and preventing their access to the circle edge. With Koenen struggling to find space away from Mentor in the goal circle, Wood was working double time at GA to receive the ball on the circle edge and feed to Koenen. She had six goal assists for the first quarter, while C Laura Langman had only three and WA Laura Scherian, moved from her habitual centre position to WA, had none.
Ravaillion seemed to relish a focused defensive task, and consistently pushed Langman to receive the ball wide in the goal third, until Langman started taking some less reliable long and deep runs to the pocket.
Down the Magpies shooting end, Shimona Nelson’s first task at GS was to swallow her nerves. She missed her first two shots, but quickly settled in to receive in spectacular fashion some speculative airball passes from Browne and Natalie Medhurst. By the end of the quarter, all three Magpies feeders were sharing the joy of passing to Nelson, particularly Ravaillion who celebrated her lobs with Medhurst-style applause.
Lightning’s new GK Phumza Maweni was no match in the air, and the increasing speed of feeds to the circle prevented her from moving her feet around Nelson to confuse the space. By the end of the game however, Maweni was showing her intelligence by learning to reduce the space Nelson had to operate in.
Against the ever-classy Karla Pretorius, Medhurst played her usual game of clearing the goal circle and looking to her GS as first option. She scored eleven goals at 73% across the game, leaving Nelson the bulk of the scoring of 46 at 85%, suggesting no radical departure from her attacking role at West Coast Fever. It was a delight to see her smooth organisation of a new four-play attacking combination, which contrasted starkly with the relative incoherence of the Lightning attack.
The Magpies established a five-goal lead late in the first quarter, which they maintained until the third quarter before Lightning coach Noeline Taurua made some substitutions. At the nine-minute mark of the third quarter, Peace Proscovia was brought into the game at GS, although inexplicably with a new WA as Jacqui Russell, by nature a WD, came on for a tiring Scherian.
Russell’s first pass predictably resulted in a turnover, and her third pass a held ball which squandered an opportunity to convert Maweni’s defensive gain. It’s a hard task to expect any cold substitute to slot into a game late in a third quarter. Proscovia got her first goal under the post with thirty seconds left, via a penalty dish-off from Wood, but Mentor was all over her on the following passage of play, decisively spoiling a long pass from front position.
Lightning went to three-quarter time still trailing by six, and nothing improved in the final quarter, as the Magpies began to revel in their team connections and converted defensive gains in six of the Lightning’s centre passes for the quarter. Proscovia scored nine goals from ten attempts for the quarter, yet there was a distinct impression that it was only Wood who could instinctively turn and pass to her. Both Langman and Scherian struggled to see where to put the ball for her, and Mentor was cleverly pushing her away from the goal post to confuse the issue.
The story is in the statistics: Wood had six goal assists to Proscovia for the quarter, while Langman and Scherian had only three between them. The Magpies won the game with an impressive margin of 14, 57 – 43, having dominated the final quarter 18 – 10.
Player of the match was April Brandley, a thoughtful choice in a winning team. She had six defensive gains and two intercepts, with only eight penalties. She was persistent and disciplined in running with Steph Wood, restricting her to 15 goals at 68%.
Rob Wright was thrilled with his team’s performance. “I was particularly pleased that we were able to stick at it, because they are the masters of being able to control play. We have been working really hard at trying to come up with a way of stopping that a little bit.”
A key aspect of this strategy was breaking up the habitual play of the Lightning feeders. “We were trying to keep them a little bit separated. They’re very good at playing high possession netball with very little error rate, but often they play quite short, and our idea was if we could try and keep them a little bit separated, I reckon a few more errors can occur. We were able to win a fair bit more ball when we were able to do that. We knew we would have to be super disciplined to do that and stay in play, and our penalties were pretty good tonight. We were staying in play and actually caused some errors, so that was really pleasing.”
Wright was really impressed with Nelson’s first game. “She was super nervous. She was really nervous yesterday, and she rolled in today and said, ‘Oh, I’m-’ and I was hoping she was going to say, ‘not nervous’, and she said, ‘I’m even more nervous’! I’m pretty thrilled. She just keeps getting better and I’m really excited to see where we’re going to end up with her by the end.”
Looking ahead, Wright is looking to build more consistency in team play. “At times, some of our conversions of possessions won were good, and then all of a sudden they were a bit off. I thought defensively all day we were pretty good. A couple of tweaks I thought need to be made in the circle. We let a few too many easy ones through. When we keep pressuring it I think we’re better. We need to give not too much easy stuff away. At times I thought we threw a few balls that we didn’t need to go; we probably could have added an extra ball in. We need a little bit more patience, and to make the most of our opportunities.”
Wright is not confident of an imminent return for veteran WA Madi Browne from her knee injury. “She had an MRI that came back clear, but something’s not right with it. We’re seeing the surgeon tomorrow, but to be brutally honest I’m not that hopeful about what they’re going to find. They’ve rehabbed the hell out of it, and we’ve made no ground. So, something’s amiss. I’m praying, because I want to put this midcourt that everyone wants to see together. We’ll hopefully know after tomorrow what it looks like. I’m hoping, but my heart’s not feeling that great about it.”
Starting the season with a win was especially important for the new coach. “One of the things we have been trying to build across pre-season was the ability to be able to win.” Wright said. “I felt like at times that is something you can lose really easily. Winning becomes a habit, losing becomes a habit. I think we got some really good confidence through pre-season, but let’s face it, we never won Round One. It was a nice way to start against a quality side. They’ve made some changes, but they picked up some quality players for the ones they’ve lost.
Magpies (57) def Lightning (43)
(15-10, 12-13, 12-10, 18-10)
Player of the match: April Brandley (Magpies)
GS Shimona Nelson
GA Nat Medhurst
WA Kelsey Browne
C Kim Ravaillion
WD Ash Brazill
GD April Brandley
GK Geva Mentor
GS Cara Koenen
GA Stephanie Wood
WA Laura Scherian
C Laura Langman
WD Madeline McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Phumza Maweni
Magpies: Kim Ravaillion 7, Ash Brazill 7
Lightning: Laura Scherian 8, Laura Langman 7, Steph Wood 7
Magpies: Geva Mentor 4
Lightning: Karla Pretorius 6
Magpies: Geva Mentor 6, April Brandley 6.
Lightning: Phumza Maweni 8, Karla Pretorius 7