Every week, Edge of the Crowd will chat to coaches and players across the league, and break down the big questions and the big issues emerging from the weekend.
Diamond concerns brewing as shooters struggle
For the second week in a row, three of the four incumbent Diamond shooters struggled across their games. The Sunshine Coast Lightning combination of Cara Koenen and Steph Wood has been the Diamonds' starting shooting duo since Gretel Bueta announced her pregnancy.
In Round Three, the Lightning were held to just 42 goals, a season low for completed games, strangled by the Jamaican combination of Shamera Sterling and Latanya Wilson.
The Jamaican Sunshine Girls have shown, at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, that they have entered the elite realms of international netball, and a show of strength, dominating the starting shooting circle would have set off alarm bells for Stacey Marinkovich.
Her concerns would not have been eased by the second half performance by the Lightning shooters this week, where the Lightning scored just 23 goals in the second half, on track for a second low performance.
A hallmark of the struggle that the Lightning faced in the second half was the need to play around with the ball at circle edge, demonstrated by the number of feeds that went without an attempt on goal.
Annie Miller and Laura Scherian, who shared the wing attack bib across the match totalled 45 feeds, but just 20 feeds that resulted in an attempt on goal. The standard is closer to a ratio of 3:2, not less than 2:1.
Additionally, Sophie Garbin has struggled for the Magpies, shooting around 60 per cent accuracy over the last fortnight. While the Magpies have relied on her for Super Shot shooting, a different challenge to regular shooting, she has managed just 36 per cent of those shots.
While her 83 per cent accuracy on the one point shot is better, it is still short of the 90 per cent that elite shooters routinely achieve. Her inconsistency will be concerning, and Garbin has yet to truly sew up a ticket to South Africa for the Netball World Cup later this year.
One upside for Marinkovich has been the form of Kiera Austin, who continues to hit her straps in her second season back from an ACL injury.
Austin has been dominant for the Vixens, carrying the shooting load and playing a key part moving the ball and defensively for the Vixens, owning the goal attack bib.
Simone McKinnis was full of praise for Austin after Round Four.
"I thought the work rate from Kiera was great tonight, and the shooting was excellent, but just the work rate in attack and defense was really important for us," McKinnis said.
The form of the other shooters will be leaving the door open for potential bolters like Donnell Wallam and Sophie Dwyer to storm into a spot on the plane to South Africa.
Melbourne Vixens def Sunshine Coast Lightning 60-56
The Lightning and the Vixens played out a nailbiter, with neither side able to break away and build a significant lead.
The Lightning had the slightly better first quarter, taking a two-goal lead into the first break, as Koenen and Wood started well.
Koenen started particularly well, with three gains in the second quarter - a start usually reserved for defenders. The duo continued to challenge the Vixens in the second quarter, with plenty of movement in the pockets of the goal third keeping defenders moving, and unable to settle against the body.
The Lightning took that two goal lead into the second half, but the Vixens had made a shift at half time, taking Hannah Mundy out, and bringing Kate Eddy in, shifting Liz Watson and Kate Moloney around.
Eddy made an impact in the second half, as the Vixens started to slow down the Lightning circle.
It wasn't just the midcourt, as the defensive end started to make an impact too, winning ball (seven gains in the second half), and slowing down the opportunities for Koenen and Wood.
After the game, McKinnis explained where she thought the game was won.
"Our second half, we got some more ball defensively, I think our defensive pressure was good, and we were just a little bit smarter with the use of our ball as well.
"I think ultimately we worked it out, kept the pressure on, and stayed in play - that was a big difference." McKinnis wasn't wrong - the Vixens were whistled for 33 penalties in the first half, and just 21 in the second half.
The change in the midcourt to bring Kate Eddy on helped up the pressure, as the more experienced wing defence helped stabilise the Vixens in front of the defensive circle.
Eddy was also key in helping bring the ball up the court, with four centre pass receives in the second half, helping set up the Vixens' attack.
"We probably were just a bit disjointed through court, and going back to what is our normal starting seven, and to also lift our defensive pressure," McKinnis explained.
"Kate Eddy offers something different - pressure and hands over. It just lifted that defensive pressure."
The Vixens now travel to Adelaide to take on the Thunderbirds, while the Lightning will face the improving Swifts.
Collingwood Magpies def Queensland Firebirds 69-61
Long-time netball fans would be all too familiar with the concept of the "championship quarter" - the third quarter that often sets the result in stone. This Sunday, all it took was 15 minutes to break the Firebirds, giving them their fourth straight loss to start the season.
At halftime, things were looking good for the Birdies, who seemed on track to breeze through the round. Post-match, Coach Bec Bulley was pleased with her team's first half, which left them with a five-goal lead.
Come the third quarter, things were looking very different. Just five minutes in and a storm of black and white hit the Firebirds. Bulley's initial response was to switch up her defensive end, before her two most experienced players left the court, in a move that baffled some of the spectators.
Magpies coach Nicole Richardson stuck with her original seven, trusting them to make the necessary changes in their game. Post-match, she commented on her half-time rev up, saying:
"It was a tough chat, but it was one of those things where I probably didn’t need to say too much. The girls knew that it wasn’t their brand of netball, we needed to get back to what we do well.
"It was like ‘Basically, you need to get it together or we’re looking to make changes.’ So maybe that little threat there - of coming off the court, because players don’t like coming off the court [was what spurred them on]."
Sophie Garbin also commented on the team's half-time chat, sharing:
"Obviously Richo’s very passionate, so she got stuck into us a litte bit, but it was all very directive in the change room. Bit of a rev up, but lots of clear instructions.
"We really knew what we needed to do coming out at half time, it wasn’t panic stations in there."
After the 23-8 quarter, there was an attempted comeback by the Firebirds in the dying minutes, spurred on by the super shot. The surge was too late, and with Mia Stower leaving the court due to a corked thigh, Emily Moore had six minutes on the court to try to make an impact.
As a recently elevated training partner, the athlete has had limited SSN court time, which does not bode well for time in the pressure cooker that was Sunday afternoon's game.
As Bec Bulley summarised, the Firebirds simply "need to be better" at handling pressure. Unfortunately for the team, these things often take time, which will likely mean they have a disappointing looking 2023 season.
With Bulley signed to the team for four years, and all players coming off contract at the end of the season, she'll have a lot of decisions to make in the coming months.
Will we see the team stick around after building connections for a year? Or will it be time for the Firebirds to start from scratch?
Adelaide Thunderbirds def by Giants Netball 54-59
The Thunderbirds were looking to cement their status as contenders with a win over the Giants, as the ladder starts to seperate. Early on, it looked like they were on task, leading at three quarter time, and playing solid netball.
The wheels started to turn late in the third quarter, as the momentum started to shift in the match.
The Thunderbirds changed up their lineup, shifting Tayla Williams to wing defence, and bringing Maisie Nankivell into centre for the first time in attack. Alongside her, Lucy Austin moved into goal shooter, pushing Eleanor Cardwell into goal attack.
It was a lineup that struggled to move the ball quickly, looking stagnant at time, and increasing the risk by the passing up and down the ball.
In the end, it was a huge problem for the Thunderbirds, in an uncharacteristic showing, coughing up more ball than any other point so far this season.
Those turnovers were at the worst time, but were a reflection of the lack of movement through the midcourt, and into the shooting circle. It will be a warning flag for Thunderbirds coach Tania Obst that the combination out on court did struggle to move the ball, reminiscent of the 2022 Thunderbirds that finished near the bottom of the ladder.
It didn't help the Thunderbirds that at the other end, the Giants had started to rectify one of their weaknesses. Throughout 2023, the Giants had struggled to rebound any missed Super Shot attempts.
In Round Four, they managed to rebound three of their six, missed Super Shots a dramatic increase from previous weeks.
The Giants converted those rebounds for four goals, a massive difference in the context of the game.
After the match, Obst reflected on where it had gone wrong for the Thunderbirds.
"I thought we were actually in control in the last quarter, but [there was] a missed goal, a loose ball, [and] we didn't really play some of the moments, and an experienced team like the Giants made the most of it," Obst explained.
"I thought that [the Austin/Cardwell circle] worked really well... Eleanor then plays quite a different goal attack game to Tippah [Dwan].
"Maisie getting some more depth when Georgie [Horjus] and Elle [Cardwell] were playing high. At times, we are just going to have to have a look at how we can bring the ball through a little bit differently when our first and second option aren't free."
The Thunderbirds will now go back to the drawing board ahead of facing the Vixens next week. Now the Giants have a win on the board, they will look to build against the Magpies next week.
NSW Swifts def by West Coast Fever 67-78
The NSW Swifts started strongly, giving the Fever nothing. They jumped out of the blocks, leading for much of the first quarter and the start of the second quarter.
The Swifts were able to play high level netball, and keep the pressure on the Fever early on. The key for them was keeping Sasha Glasgow quiet, and slowing her partnership with Alice Teague-Neeld.
"You can't focus on [Jhaniele] Fowler. She's the last point of call," Swifts coach Briony Akle explained.
"So for us, we needed to turn ball over early. And that certainly was you know, an area of concentration at training this week. And we did a good job, but not good enough for the 60 minutes."
Glasgow did start to get going in the second half, as Dan Ryan swapped Verity Simmons out of centre and Jess Anstiss up the court, to give the Fever a different look.
Akle had nothing bad to say about Glasgow's second half, noting that her playing style takes advantage of her combination with Fowler.
"We know that and I feel like when you've got Fowler at the back, you can take those risks and know that you know, you've got farther back for the shot."
As Glasgow took those risks, and rose in the second half, Dan Ryan's focus was on the defensive end, as he reshuffled the decks to increase the pressure on the Swifts.
"We needed to get a little more assertive in phase one and phase two, making sure that we were slowing their speed down," Ryan said.
"They were getting depth on us a bit too easily, which was making it difficult for [Courtney Bruce] at the back against Romelda [Aiken-George].
"Once we were able to lock down a bit with hands, through Kim Jenner and Jess Anstiss, I thought we saw a great shift in our defensive unit."
It worked, as the Fever choked the flow of ball into Aiken-George and Housby. Akle threw Sophie Fawns into the mix in the second half in response, trying a more mobile circle.
Fawns took a while to settle in, with more than seven minutes on court before she put her first shot up. It followed a nine minute cameo last week without a shot.
Fawns did find her feet, with three Super Shot attempts in the last quarter, but only one make, as she makes a slow start to her sophomore season.
Akle defended Fawns, noting that she is still a young player, thrown in the deep end with a team hoping to challenge for a premiership.
"She's she's still a young player," Akle said.
"If Sammy [Wallace] was here she'd be getting limited court time... We're going to need to look after her and I think that's what we're certainly doing, just building her into the game.
"She's a player of the future and she's done a great job for us now. So she'll get her minutes and she'll get her time."
Few will have forgotten Fawns impact last season, as she burst onto the scene replacing Wallace after her injury. With just 22 minutes on court so far this season, it will take some more time before Fawns can settle in and look to repeat that impact.
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