Defence wins championships? Words to live by for Adelaide Thunderbirds

The Adelaide Thunderbirds have relied on a strong defensive group to bring them to the Grand Final. This weekend, it will be the same story as they look for an elusive premiership.

For the third time in four weeks, the Adelaide Thunderbirds will face up against the NSW Swifts. The Thunderbirds have won both of the outings so far, but at different times in the matches have been down by as many as five and seven goals.

It will be a tough tactical battle for the Thunderbirds, who have had a week to prepare, but were rocked earlier this week with an injury scare to star defender Shamera Sterling. Those injury concerns were quickly allayed, but it underscored just how important Sterling is to the Thunderbirds.

Sterling led the Super Netball competition for defensive rebounds, deflections and intercepts across the year, but her impact is felt in ways that aren’t always measured on the scoreboard.

Alongside compatriot Latanya Wilson, and Matilda Garrett, the trio have been the most fearsome defensive unit in the competition in 2023.

Typically, they line up with Sterling at goal keeper, and either Garrett at goal defence and Wilson at wing defence, where they have thwarted stars like Liz Watson and Kelsey Browne, or with Wilson at goal defence and Tayla Williams or Hannah Petty at wing defence.

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Playing the Swifts repeatedly in a short space of time has allowed for a level of creativity as the Thunderbirds look to trouble internationals like Helen Housby, Maddy Proud and Paige Hadley.

After the Thunderbirds beat the Swifts in Round 14, coach Tania Obst explained how the versatility within the defensive group allowed for the flexibility to challenge teams.

"Latty [Wilson] was sensational tonight," Obst said.

"She's been really consistent for us for the majority of the year. And she really had intent with what she was doing.

"I thought she was a little quiet last week, but she was ready to make amends for that. She was pretty good tonight, and it was a new experience for some of the younger girls tonight.

"Latty, back at keeper, she's brilliant in all of those three positions. So I think she really would be sort of contesting outside the circle.

"I thought Maisie did a really great job in sort of what she needed to do defensively and then bringing the ball through court for us, and it was certainly new for Shamera and give her something else to look at.

"But obviously also giving the opposition something different as well. It was always a bit of a chance that we talked and I thought it wasn't too bad a move tonight."

A week later, Obst talked about the tweaks that were required to beat the Swifts in the semi final.

"Defensively we put a lot of time into what we did well last week," Obst said.

"We made some adjustments that we thought the Swifts might do and how we were then going to combat that and again, I thought our execution across that transversal was very, very good."

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The trio has been particularly effective at inducing frantic play from opposing attack lines, forcing turnovers, bad passes, held balls and generally poor decision making.

After the Round 14 loss, Swifts coach Briony Akle praised the Thunderbirds defence for their ability to stifle her team's attack.

"They are one of the best defensive duos in the in the whole league," Akle siad.

"So it was a challenge for us and I certainly think we'll learn a lot from the things we did out there tonight. We tried a few things that didn't work and certainly the combinations change around that same for me as a coach.

"I need to look at those changes at what times. But I certainly think they're world class defenders and it just adds to the experience that they got out there tonight."

Akle had similar thoughts after the semi final loss as well.

"I certainly think there were moments in that game that our decision making wasn't the best," Akle said.

"So that could have been either one or two goals. So I don't ever put it down to that last ball. So we've just got to be better over the 60 minutes.

"I think we certainly forced balls that we shouldn't force and, you know, we know what we're coming up against, in terms of world class, best defenders. So, for us, it's keeping that ball short, giving them little tiny opportunity to get intercepts off us."

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And the Swifts have been troubled by the Thunderbirds’ defence in the last few matchups, with Housby particularly well down on her recent form. Wilson and Sterling were responsible for ending a streak of six games where Housby registered 100 Nissan Net Points in Round 14, where they limited her impact to 16.5, in a season-low output.

The major semi final was emblematic of that, as the Thunderbirds stopped Housby in her tracks. While she bounced back in terms of individual stats in the semi final, the effect was felt on the other shooters in the Swifts' circle, who combined for 3 Nissan Net Points in the semi final, with Housby shouldering the shooting and playmaking load.

Graphic showing Helen Housby's NNP from R8 2023, with a small perofmance in Round 14 against the Thunderbirds

Their effect has also been clear on Hadley and Proud, who have been less effective and less calm in the face of the Thunderbirds’ pressure, folding at times during the two previous matches.

While it may have been a decade since the Thunderbirds made the grand final and won a premiership, if the defensive trio of Sterling, Wilson and Garrett are effective on Saturday night, it will go a long way to breaking the drought and setting up a new entry in the record books for the Thunderbirds.