The season has now hit its halfway point. The picture is becoming clearer in some ways, and murkier in others. The Edge of the Crowd netball team break down all the takeaways from the weekend of action.
Melbourne Vixens def Queensland Firebirds 72-60
In a game of two very different halves, the Vixens and Firebirds kicked off the weekend of netball with a blockbuster game. The Firebirds backed in the starting lineup that they used against the Giants (though not the lineup they ended with which saw them get their first win of the season) with Emily Moore in Goal Attack, Macy Gardner in Centre and Kim Ravaillion in Wing Defence.
An hour before the game, Kate Eddy was ruled out with a minor injury forcing the Vixens into yet another new combination for the season with Liv Lewis in Goal Keeper, Emily Mannix at Goal Defence and Jo Weston at Wing Defence.
For the Vixens, the new lineup did well in the first quarter, taking it 17 goals to 15. However there were some early signs of trouble to come with the attack end struggling to find pace and connection to get the ball easily to their circle.
This would continue in the second quarter with the Vixens falling into an incredibly stagnant attack end and the defence duo of Weston and Mannix struggling to provide the normal through-court options and depth the Vixens are used to delivering.
Concerningly, Diamonds squad member Kiera Austin was really struggling to perform, delivering lackadaisical, slow movement while accumulating five turnovers and negative 26.5 Nissan net points. Vixens Coach, Simone McKinnis was finally forced to make a change, putting temporary replacement player Kim Borger on the court in Goal Attack for the last 73 seconds of the first half.
The Vixens ended the second quarter with a measly 10 goals however the Firebirds had flown during this quarter to net 17 goals and take the lead going into halftime.
Simone McKinnis reflected on the stagnant attack end for the first half saying at half time she told the team they needed to be more dynamic and delivering a message to the team of "if you want to win, if you want to get back into this game and back on the winners list then you have to do what you have to do out there - there is no easy way".
The defensive combination of Remi Kamo and Ruby Bakewell-Doran were delivering immense pressure in the first half and deflected a number of Keira Austin’s goal attempts.
The young duo also were delivering that pressure while being incredibly clean- receiving a total of nine contact and obstruction calls for the 30 minutes of netball.
The Vixens defence duo had 15 penalties in comparison - not inordinately high but the Firebirds were managing to stay in play for longer and build the pressure that lead to a very tired and mistake-riddled Vixens.
While the Firebirds went into the changerooms at half time with their tails, or wings, up – the second half was about to deliver a phenomenal turnaround.
The Firebirds started the half strong with three goals in a row however at the half the Vixens had made a raft of changes for the second half; pushing Jo Weston into her home position of Goal Defence and pushing Kate Moloney back to Wing Defence, Liz Watson to Centre and Hannah Mundy on to Wing Attack.
Midway through the quarter, those changes were about to hit their stride. Perhaps these changes were helped but an unfortunate knock from Lewis to Gardner which sent the Firebirds centre to the bench and the Firebirds seemed to lose their structure just as Vixens finally hit their straps.
An uninterrupted six-goal run for the Vixens saw them bring the margin back to three and once the power five activated the Vixens capitalised on their momentum to steal the lead back by one by three-quarter time.
Despite being only down by one goal going into the last quarter, the 20-14 goal quarter seemingly spooked the Firebirds coaching unit which caused a raft of changes including bringing Ashlee Unie onto Goal Defence.
Firebirds Coach Bec Bulley said she had wanted Unie to 'make sure she was doing the work out the front, stay up on goal attack, make sure she is contesting and then drive the ball out of defence'.
Unfortunately, the change did not pay dividends for the Firebirds. After the first five minutes, Vixens scored ten goals to Firebirds five and Coach Bulley brought Kamo back on to Goal Keeper and pushed Bakewell-Doran to Goal Defence.
The Vixens had found their groove though and Gardner, who had come back on for the last quarter, was forced to call an injury time-out and head back to the bench. Once again this left the Firebirds without structure despite veterans Gabi Simpson and Kim Ravaillion being back in the positions fans are most used to seeing them occupy.
Credit has to be given to Weston who shut down both the Firebirds' goal attacks, Lewis who found her groove and was pulling ball in and disrupting the feed to Wallam for the second half and Austin who found seemingly two extra gears to deliver strong speedy leads and help deliver the ball to Kumwenda who shot the lights out. As Bulley said it, 'the Vixens out-classed us in the end'.
The Firebirds, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, come to the halfway mark of the season with one win but are continuing to develop a strong vision for their future with a lineup that is starting to put pressure on teams.
The Vixens, while ending up back on the winners' list, continue to deliver shakey performances that leave questions about their ability to maintain a finals position let alone contend for a grand final spot.
Giants Netball def by NSW Swifts 67-64
The Sydney Derby is always hard-fought, as the two NSW teams battle for supremacy, despite sharing the same training facility. Both sides talked about how crucial it was to take state bragging rights.
“It's always really hated and it gets physical. We like to beat each other. We are changing things are about a metre and a half from each other.
“So you know you want to be able to walk in on Monday morning and look at the others and be like, we’re the ones with the bragging rights this week, and obviously, we're going to play them again,” Swifts midcourter Tayla Fraser explained after the game.
For the Swifts, Fraser started the match, and finished strongly as she played against Maddie Hay. Hay, who had a massive impact early, was quietened towards the end of the match, as Fraser got a handle on what was needed from her.
Fraser, celebrating her 50th game for the Swifts, had a key deflection in the dying minutes to help the Swifts wrestle control in the final moments of the match and take the win.
She explained that the time off court in the second quarter helped her get a handle on Hay's performance, and understand how to slow her down.
"When I came off, Bri [Akle] just told me to have a look at the second phase. I think Maddie was doing really well to keep me on her back so she could find that second phase really well.
“So this is really important about me coming back on and finding that movement returning on out of D man and moving around the [goal circle] to get the angles and confuse her a little bit, I think I just came on and started changing angles a little bit more rather than getting stuck on the body.“
For the Giants, Lauren Moore was the wildcard, with her best performance of the year, as she got the start against Romelda Aiken-George.
After the match, Julie Fitzgerald was full of praise for Moore's performance.
"I thought she played really really well. I think it was such a shame that she did start to cramp and I thought Tilly [McDonell] played a very difficult role for us to have to come on come off. Come on, come off is not good.”
Giants captain Jo Harten was also full of praise for Moore.
“She’s been giving absolutely everything your training and she deserved her start today,” Harten said.
“She came on she won ball for us. I've been told better cram for the answer. It's unfortunate. She could have played the 60 but really cramped I think.
“I think it was because she's someone that would give her absolute or when she's on the floor and I thought she really lifted us especially at the start of the game.”
In the end, the Swifts came away with a clutch win, their third in a row, and their fourth for the year, putting them on track to be the most-clutch team in Super Netball history.
No team has ever won more than four "clutch" matches (three goals or less), and the 2020 Swifts won four and drew one, as the only side with a better clutch history.
And the 2023 Swifts have done that halfway through the year, with seven matches still to go (and their Round 2 matchup against the Thunderbirds not counted).
Swifts coach Briony Akle attributed it to her team staying focussed and disciplined in the final minutes.
"Last time out was about us and executing better and being better at just staying in the moment and not getting caught up,” Akle said.
“I think it's certainly treasuring when you've got a five goal lead in this league, you have to be disciplined to stick to a game plan and certainly, we were undisciplined for short amounts of time in that game, so going back to being discipline and doing simple things really well.“
Fraser also praised the culture as part of the reason the Swifts were able to pull out the win.
“We want to do it for each other, just kind of going on there as an individual and being like, I'm gonna win the game like the seven people on the court,” Fraser said.
“So it's really imperative that we do stick to that culture of wanting to win it for each other rather than wanting to win.”
Sunshine Coast Lightning def by West Coast Fever 74-64
There's not a lot that hasn't been said about Jhaniele Fowler of the course of her illustrious career, but it was another huge performance on the weekend that gave the Fever the momentum to bounce back with a win.
Fowler had 65 goals on 65 attempts, the best return for any player this season. It's her fifth most prolific match in Super Netball history, as she had her way with Kadie-Ann Dehaney and Ashleigh Ervin over the course of the match.
There was little that they could do, as Alice Teague-Neeld continued her strong form, with 37 feeds into the circle for 33 goal assists. Teague-Neeld missed out on Diamonds selection last week, despite showing arguably the best form of any wing attack in the competition.
It is the continuation of a transformation under the coaching of Dan Ryan, who has taken the former goal attack and turned her into one of the most devastating attacking weapons in the competition outside the goal circe.
Halfway through the season, Teague-Neeld leads the league in goal assists and centre pass receives, and is on track to record more centre pass receives than any player did last season.
It wouldn't take much for her to be in a position to do the same with goal assists, especially if the Fever push deep into finals and Teague-Neeld gets to play extra games.
The Lightning now find themselves one game outside the top four at the season's midpoint, but they are far from sure of themselves. Shannon Eagland, who just weeks ago was announced as the permanent replacement player for Tara Hinchliffe limped off on the weekend, clutching her knee, and has an injury cloud hanging over her head.
The strategy that the Lightning have relied heavily on this year, bringing Cara Koenen into play on second phase and pushing the ball into the pockets of the goal third early has been less effective in recent weeks, as goal keepers have become more equipped to respond to the strategy.
The question for the Lightning will be whether they can re-establish that attacking efficiency. The Lightning had just 57 shots on Sunday, less than Jhaniele Fowler, and a volume that was always going to fall short of a competitive score against the Fever.
They will be left licking their wounds and looking for revenge this weekend against the NSW Swifts, who beat them by a single goal just a few weeks ago.
Adelaide Thunderbirds def Collingwood Magpies 52-47
The Thunderbirds leapt out of the blocks, stifling the Magpies to the worst effort of any quarter to open the match, and create enough of a lead to run away with the result.
Shamera Sterling, continuing her sterling run, had four gains by quarter time, while the Magpies had given away 30 penalties (yes, in a single quarter), and scored just seven goals.
The Thunderbirds finished with 15 gains, and Sterling had eight herself, as the defensive end continued their strong season. The trio of Sterling, Matilda Garrett and Latanya Wilson have been the most formidable combination of the year, and it has thrust Garrett into the Diamonds' squad (Wilson and Sterling are regulars for Jamaica).
On the other side of the court, the Magpies eventually warmed into the match, with the scoreline probably flattering their efforts after a dismal first quarter, but there was more than just the scoreline for Nicole Richardson to worry about.
Sophie Garbin has become an incredibly important player for the Magpies. As the goal attack, she is the hinge for the shooting circle, and the source of movement, with a holding shooter like Shimona Nelson.
She's also the engine that makes the two-point offence run, as the volume shooter for the Magpies in that super shot period.
Unfortunately for the Magpies, Garbin is in the worst form slump of her career at the moment, playing out of position at goal attack, and unable to find any rhythm on court.
Garbin's early returns this season were reasonably strong, especially Rounds One and Two, as the Magpies were incredibly competitive with the Swifts (who they beat) and the Vixens (one goal short).
But other than a brief mirage in Round Four, and even that had its concerns, Garbin's form has been on the downward slide, and so has the Magpies.
And it is a case of where Garbin goes, so too the Magpies follow. While Nissan Net Points are not perfect, they paint a picture of a player's overall contribution, and Garbin's trend matches the Magpies' trend across the season.
When Sophie Garbin is on, so are the Magpies, and they have shown the ability to match it with sides that will be looking for finals. But when Garbin struggles, the Magpies break down, and that spells trouble for Collingwood.
In recent weeks, Kelsey Browne, who plays wing attack alongside Garbin, and is her primary circle-edge feeder has been audibly encouraging the Diamonds' shooter as she plays - a sign that the goal attack is well down on confidence.
So with Collingwood languishing in the bottom half of the ladder, there is a perfect barometer to assess how they are going. The big question for Nicole Richardson, is whether she can find a way to change the weather inside the building, or whether the story of the season will be written in black and white, with no shades of grey.
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