The 2023 Super Netball season finished with a thriller, perhaps the best game of the season saved to last. The two sides who had been the best all year, the two dominant teams, faced off for a blockbuster grand final.
The third matchup in four weeks between these teams, the familiarity bred perfection, as both teams were forced to execute at their very best to try and separate from the other. In the end, it came down to extra time, but Edge of the Crowd dives into how it all unfolded.
Q1: Defensive tactics on the attack
The match started with both sides playing a clear defensive tactic, and for both sides, it was effective.
The Thunderbirds, with Matilda Garrett, Latanya Wilson and Shamera Sterling, played a game plan that kept them off the body of the Swifts, and pounced on every loose pass, particularly anything across the transverse line and into the pockets.
Each of Sterling and Wilson finished with two gains, as the Swifts were careless with the ball. Maddy Proud was the worst offender, with three turnovers in the first stanza.
The Swifts, tried to take the big name players out of the game for the Thunderbirds, putting the ball in the hands of Tippah Dwan as much as possible. Most clearly though, they walled off the super shot, and the Thunderbirds didn't take a single shot from that range during the first quarter.
The only time Dwan had taken more shots in a quarter in the last month of the season was the start of the semi final, where she had nine attempts. The Swifts' strategy may have slowed the Thunderbirds start, but they still trailed at quarter time.
The Swifts were slow to start, and after the game, Proud struggled to explain what had happened.
"I don't think it was lack of effort," Proud said.
"It was almost like [the Thunderbirds] had that little bit more energy than us, and it was kind of that case of the harder you tried, the worse it ended up for us. And then I think we almost kind of went too 'big picture early'"
"I just thought early on, we probably just weren't disciplined enough we had poor execution and probably let the ball get down too easily into their attack in and when they were scoring so easily and then it was difficult for us."
Q2: Bench Bingo as combinations come to the fore
Both coaches worked through their benches, and with almost four minutes left in the first half, all ten players had been out on court. The coaches worked through different combinations, and it was increasingly clear that certain combinations were more effective than others.
Halfway through the second quarter, Briony Akle shifted to the defenisve lineup that she has relied on for six quarters of the finals so far, with Teigan O'Shannassy at goal keeper, Sarah Klau at goal defence and Maddy Turner at goal defense.
Unlike in previous weeks in finals, the combination wasn't as effective in the grand final, as Georgie Horjus ran riot, outpacing Turner and finding space on court, dominating feeds and centre passes.
By half time, Horjus had the most centre pass receives for the Thunderbirds, most of which came during the second half of the second quarter.
It was a warning shot for Akle, that she moved to correct later in the match. In the seven minutes in the second term that the Swifts persisted with the combination, they fell behind by two goals further, down by eight goals at half time.
For the Thunderbirds however, they were flowing at full efficiency, as coach Tania Obst remarked after the match.
"I think the first half was probably the best two quarters of netball that I've ever seen in my time as coach," Obst said.
"From 2019, that has been the best two quarters that we've ever played. But we were just really clinical, very focused on what we were doing, executing, getting ball and rewarding the defenders with it.
"I knew that the Swifts would come back I knew that they're a classy outfit. We respect them a lot. But that first half was close to perfect."
Q3: Lockdown, knockdown
The third quarter was the time that the Swifts came alive, with a defensive tweak setting up a roadblock that the Thunderbirds struggled to overcome.
Akle made the switch to send Klau back to goal keeper, Turner back to goal defence and brought Tayla Fraser back onto court to shut down Georgie Horjus. And shut her down she did.
The Swifts would finish the quarter on a 7-2 run, and Horjus had less goal assists and less centre pass receives from the midway point of the third quarter to the end of the game than she did in the second quarter.
Akle was full of praise for Fraser, Turner and Klau after the match, as the defensive group locked down the Thunderbirds attack.
"I just the thought around that was just the combination of Klau and Turner together and they certainly worked the angles well, and that combination has been going for a long time," Akle explained.
"Kudos to Tay Fraser who came back on and I thought she had a great game. She had sat out that time on that bench but she brought it when she came back on and she brought the energy."
Obst admitted after the game that she had been prepared for the Swifts to try and lock Horjus down, acknowledging the importance of the Kangaroo Island native to her team's attacking flow.
"We sort of had certain centre passes that we wanted to execute if Georgie was being really shut down on that [transverse] line and what that looked like," Obst said.
"She's obviously a playmaker for us and, you know, it got a little bit sort of clunky at times, but I felt like that when someone was sort of being smothered a little bit, someone else would stand up. It just changed our shape a little bit, which at times we did take a little while to adjust to.
"I always felt that that was potentially going to happen at certain times in the game. And I think, while it was sort of only one turnover here and there. I still sort of felt pretty confident that we could continue to get the ball through to goal."
Q4: On the edge of glory
As the game careened towards its conclusion, both sides were relentless in their pressure, trading turnovers. The Swifts started quickly, levelling the score with ten minutes to play, having erased the half time deficit.
From there, the pressure grew, as attackers and midcourters applied defensive pressure, with Swifts shooters Sophie Fawns and Helen Housby forcing turnovers, while Tayla Williams and Horjus did the same for the Thunderbirds.
After the game, Akle was quick to highlight that when the Swifts stuck to the plan, they were hard to stop, and in the big moments, the Thunderbirds simply lifted to meet them.
"We do joke about it right?" Akle joked.
"At the end of the day, if you could play sixty minutes of beautiful netball and these guys [the team] listen to the game plan or stick to the game plan.
"You've got world class defenders out there that can cause havoc not just physically but emotionally. We did talk about just keeping the ball lower, don't give [the Thunderbirds] the opportunity."
The Swifts did keep the ball lower, bringing the game right back, and keeping the pressure on. The Thunderbirds rose to meet that pressure, not taking a backward step.
Eleanor Cardwell, the English superstar stepped up, playing a big role from goal attack. After the game, Obst reminisced back to the recruitment of Cardwell, and what she had been looking for.
"When I was recruiting her, I just said 'I just want you to come and be you and play the game that you do'," Obst said.
"I spoke to Tracey [Neville] a little bit about Elle, and not that she's necessarily been a leader amongst Manchester Thunder and, and with the [England] Roses, but she's just taken that role, that leadership role amongst a very young forward line and has been brilliant. And I thought her performance tonight was nothing short of sensational."
ET: Pure exhilaration
The extra time period in the Grand Final stood in contrast to the extra time period during the Semi Final. This time, both teams were calm and collected, with the turnovers coming from defensive pressure, rather than attacking panic.
The Thunderbirds took control of extra time, like they did a fortnight earlier, but this time, it was by weight of possession. Suffocating defence slowed the Swifts’ ability to move the ball across the transverse line, making it hard on every possession.
The Thunderbirds stacked up 69 per cent of the possession in extra time, despite only forcing one gain. The Thunderbirds also converted three centre passes to goals, rather than the Swifts two.
The other big difference showed up in the whistle count, as the Swifts were whistled for 11 penalties during the extra five minutes, with five between Klau and Turner.
In the end, Lucy Austin had the ball with 18 seconds left, with the chance to go up by three, effectively killing the game.
Despite the urging of her teammates, Austin looked to circle edge to have one extra pass, take up another five seconds, and kill the clock, giving the Swifts enough time for one possession only.
Mature beyond her years, Austin drew the attention of star teammate Eleanor Cardwell with her calm play.
“I don’t think she knew the situation, she was just like ‘I’ll get one extra pass, challenge a bit more,” Cardwell joked.
“I would trust her anywhere she catches that ball in that circle, she’s going to put it up and she’s going to shoot it and score a goal. I’m super proud of how much she’s developed this year.
“She’s been unbelievable for us, and I think she’s showing that, especially in the latter stages of the season.”
On the flip side, while Swifts captain Paige Hadley was devastated by the result, she could reflect on the fact her team forced extra time.
“I think obviously, the way that we got back into that game the last few minutes of regulation time, I thought we had momentum,” Hadley said.
“And I think our connections are so strong that in those moments we back each other and we go from there and unfortunately, it was ebbing and flowing through there and it just didn't have our way time-wise on the clock.
“We knew it was going to come down to a tight battle like that and it's a great way to win and a tough way to lose.”
The MVP of the game was Cardwell, the English superstar in her first year in the Super Netball competition, after back to back premierships with the Manchester Thunder in the Netball Super League in the UK.
Cardwell, alongside English assistant coach Tracey Neville have made a massive impact for the Thunderbirds across the season, from a talent perspective, a tactical perspective, with leadership, and In the big moments.
It was clear from the way Cardwell set up before the game. She was introduced on to court first, and made a point of giving every teammate a hug as they were called onto court, and whispered in their ear.
She was caught on the broadcast providing a rev-up to her team late in the match, and she has been a difference maker for the Thunderbirds.
After the game, she was circumspect about the whole experience, battling tears of joy and pride as she spoke.
“It's been crazy,” Cardwell said. “And I feel like it's just been wild to be honest with the move over.
“The girls made it so seamless and also being able to have my partner over here has made it really easy for me. I mean, he was cooking and cleaning and doing it all for me.
“It's been it's been a wicked year. It's been unbelievable. So many things are just happened to be like going to the first Commonwealth Games, moving to Australia, joining these incredible girls and now winning just the league. It's just unbelievable.
“As I said before, it's like, you can't dream that it's unbelievable. And I'm just super proud of everything that we've done this year and, I'm just super happy.”
Obst also paid tribute to her assistants, Neville and Cathy Fellows.
“There was a an opportunity to engage with with Tracey and then get her out here to come and support our team,” Obst explained.
“And I remember I had a vision for what that could look like. It just sort of allowed my role to be a little bit different and it was where I wanted to head .
“Netball SA invested in obviously bringing out the the extra coach for the two assistant coaches. And Tracey's personality, as well as the tactical sort of genius that she is has been fantastic and Cathy Fellows has been absolutely amazing.
“I think her level of detail and the precision that she's got, and she's got some fairly decent athletes back there to to work with.
“Their ability and want to be better every week over the year has been nothing short of sensational. I'm very grateful for both of those assistant coaches.”
In the end, the Thunderbirds take home the title for the first time in 10 years on the back of five South Australian local talents, alongside three international superstars.
The final chapter of the 2023 Super Netball season is closed, and the Thunderbirds have been crowned champions after a match that may well have been the match of the year.
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