Super Netball 2023: Preliminary Final Preview

It's all on the line, with the chance to make it to the Grand Final and keep the premiership dream alive another week. How will the match be decided?

Last weekend, the Swifts faltered under pressure for the second time this year. It was also for the second time in two weeks, and the second time against the Adelaide Thunderbirds. An extra time loss to the Thunderbirds meant their path to the Grand Final became longer, as they lost the presumed favouritism that flows with being the minor premiers.

On the other hand, the Fever did exactly what they had to do, and they did it in style. A strong victory over the Melbourne Vixens, who played excellent netball that still wasn't enough to slow the home side down. Now, they travel across the country to try and keep their premiership defence alive for another week.

Now, the two sides face off, after splitting the honours this season. The Fever took the first matchup 78-67, while the Swifts held on to win 65-64 in the return fixture, although the Fever were missing key players for that match.

For the Fever, this year, they have been extraordinarily successful going forward, scoring more goals than any other team. The only team within 100 goals are the Swifts, their opponents this weekend.

A big part of what has made the Fever so effective, aside from an All-World Goal Shooter, has been Alice Teague-Neeld's form. Teague-Neeld led the league in goal assists and centre pass receives across the year.

This combination gives Teague-Neeld two touches on most Fever possessions - the first touch, and the last touch before it finds its way to the most effective shooter in the league. Despite that, Teague-Neeld has not been a purely unstoppable force.

Most teams this season have been unable to slow her down at all, but on a few occasions, teams have managed to stop her having either the first touch, or the last touch on those possessions.

The strongest effort in slowing down Teague-Neeld's goal assists? Latanya Wilson in Round 11, who kept the Fever star to just 15 goal assists, well below her season average of 24. Ash Brazill in Round Three was the most effective at stopping Teague-Neeld getting the centre pass, restricting her to just 19 receives, compared to her season average of 27.

Wilson and Brazill both have sterling reputations as international stars, capable of physically challenging anyone on the netball court, and holding their own with their short-distance agility. Teague-Neeld has a physical presence, but it is her agility that makes her dangerous.

In Round Four, when the Swifts played the Fever, Allie Smith played the first quarter against Teague-Neeld, but after that, Maddy Turner was given the responsibility of slowing down the Fever wing attack.

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The Swifts won the first quarter, and lost the last three, and Teague-Neeld improved as the game wore on.

In Round Nine, Turner played the first three and a half quarters in wing defence, while Tayla Fraser was tasked with playing in that bib for the final seven minutes.

The Swifts turned around a four-goal deficit to score a one-goal win in the final few minutes. But it isn't as simple as just putting Fraser in wing defence.

Turner plays wing defence, as a tactical move when Briony Akle brings Teigan O'Shannassy into goal keeper, shifting typical Swifts' keeper Sarah Klau out to goal defence, and Turner out of the circle.

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It is a tactic that Akle has gone to regularly, with O'Shannassy racking up 209 minutes across the season, all of them at goal keeper. While O'Shannassy was out, Kelea Iongi stepped up as well, and played 66 minutes.

By comparison, Turner has played 838, while Klau has played 869 out of a possible 870. Most of the time Turner has spent off court has been in two minute bursts while changing bibs, as she has been an important piece for them.

Despite that, she has struggled at times at wing defence, and particularly against specific wing defence players, like Georgie Horjus last week (and in Round 14), and Alice Teague-Neeld.

So the question is, will Briony Akle use her at goal defence, where she is more potent, but perhaps there is some loss not playing O'Shannassy, or trust O'Shannassy, and run the risk of Turner at wing defence?

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Will she throw Tayla Fraser into wing defence, where she has thrived at times this year? Or will she keep her for the centre bib, where she was effective when needed last week?

It's a tough decision, and if the Swifts lose, there is a chance that whatever the decision is, it will be branded the wrong one, but only Akle knows what she will do.

Akle has another dilemma on her hands for much of the weekend, and it comes in the form of Courtney Bruce, a goal keeper in the form of her life, coming off a game-winning performance last week.

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'Bruce had seven gains last week, and helped keep the Fever out of the reach of the Vixens as they charged home. Bruce had nine gains in the first meeting between these teams, and just four in the second meeting.

Sophie Fawns played 13 minutes in the first meeting, all in the second half, where Bruce had five of her gains. Fawns didn't play in the second meeting, where Romelda Aiken-George played all 60 minutes.

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Fawns has been a key part of the Swifts' plans this year, with 33 super shot attempts, hitting 20 of them, one of the highest accuracy marks in the league.

In the second half of the year particularly, it has been clear that Fawns has a defined role as a sharp shooter goal shooter in the super shot period, where the Swifts try and stretch the lead against opposing teams.

In the last few weeks though, Akle has turned conservative at times. Fawns has played 23 minutes and three minutes in the last two matches, and her shooting return has been two goals from eight super shot attempts, including two misses only last week.

Fawns was thrown into the fire of extra time, and asked to make super shots, after not being on the court all game in the semi final last week, as Akle struggled to keep a lid on the game in extra time.

Fawns is a slight player, without the same physical presence of Aiken-George, and she has struggled against the top international keepers, like Bruce and Shamera Sterling this year (which isn't a unique issue, most shooters struggle with those two players).

Whether Akle has concerns about Fawns being able to physically match it with Bruce, or whether its a different concern, the evidence points to Fawns not being used in Plan A this week.

Despite that, her shooting this year means that when she is "on", she is a valuable asset to the Swifts, hitting 18 of her first 25 super shot attempts this year - a return that far outweighs one-goal shots in the power five.

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And so, the question will be, how does Briony Akle handle that decision, and get the best out of her two ends. Is Turner the answer? Is Fawns?

And not to be forgotten, Dan Ryan, the Fever coach, will have a countermove for each of these decisions Akle makes, especially as the game wears on.

Ryan has his own personnel decisions to make. He used Rudi Ellis as a specialist goal keeper a few times this year, and she has been effective as a rebounder and with blocking shots. Kim Jenner has been a versatile recruit, playing goal defence and allowing Sunday Aryang to push into wing defence for stretches.

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This weekend's preliminary final will be a chess match between the coaches, as much as it will be a battle between the players.

Stay tuned to see how it unfolds.