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A chance for Super Netball to enter the future

The Suncorp Super Netball season experienced countless disruptions last year, and not all were COVID-related. 2021 is their chance to start anew, shares Megan Maurice.

Kiera Austin shoots for goal against the Vixens. Image: Suncorp Super Netball
Kiera Austin shoots for goal against the Vixens. Image: Suncorp Super Netball

This time last year, the only thing that was certain about the upcoming Suncorp Super Netball season was uncertainty. The season start date was pushed back, preseason games were cancelled and players were training in lockdown. That a full season was able to be salvaged—albeit played almost entirely in Queensland and condensed in nature—was an incredible achievement and no doubt owing partly to the fact that there is a not an equivalent men’s competition to snatch priority and drain funding in difficult times.

After such a turbulent season—one that featured not just disruption and the majority of fans unable to watch their teams live, but a number of escalating controversies throughout the season—season 2021 needs to be focused on bouncing back, re-engaging the fanbase and putting in place a clear vision for the future of the competition as a new broadcast deal comes into place for 2022.

The first of the controversies came with the introduction of the super shot rule, where goals scored in the outer ring of the goal circle are worth two points for the last five minutes of each quarter. The rule was introduced hurriedly before the 2020 season despite strong fan and player objection, and will remain in place for 2021.

Kate Moloney led the Melbourne Vixens to the 2020 Super Netball premiership. Image: Melbourne Vixens
Kate Moloney led the Melbourne Vixens to the 2020 premiership. Image: Melbourne Vixens

With a full home and away season restored and venue capacities increased from 2020, administrators will be hoping to prove the added excitement value of the super shot through increased crowd numbers and a lift in energy during the last five minutes of each quarter. However, what fans will be most interested to see is if there is any evolution of the game day experience after an enforced break. While teams consider young children their key target audience, no rule change is going to be a quick fix to provide the energy boost they are looking for. A strategic change in marketing and sport presentation is required to truly change the direction of the competition and allow it to compete on the professional stage.

The unravelling of the relationship between Caitlin Bassett and the Giants was a slower burn, but became an equally significant talking point as the season progressed. From being substituted during super shot periods in the first game of the season, to spending most games on the bench by the end, it was clear that all was not well in Giant country. While full details of what went on within that camp may never emerge, the end result was Bassett being granted a release from the final year of her contract and signing with the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic in New Zealand’s ANZ Premiership. Starting her season with a full 60 minutes on court and 36 goals at 88% shows that Bassett has bounced back from 2020, but will the Giants recover similarly?

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Although they have a more balanced shooting circle this year with Jo Harten, Kiera Austin and Sophie Dwyer all providing the movement and dynamism that coach Julie Fitzgerald is seeking, the ongoing selection of five circle defenders and only three mid-courters—all of whom play their best in wing defence—raises questions about their ability to find a plan B in attack when needed. 

The Giants also featured heavily in another of 2020’s controversies—the send off of goal defence Kristiana Manu’a after a series of cautions and warnings for incidents the like of which many other players had barely been penalised for. The fact that the casualty in this instance was one of the very few players in the competition with Polynesian heritage was not lost on those watching and raised questions about the role of implicit bias training for umpires. Publicly the league and Netball Australia stood by its umpires, but incidents such as this will be even more closely scrutinised in 2021 and these issues will need to be addressed if they continue to plague the competition.

Kristiana Manu'a was at the centre of a controversial send-off in 2020. Image: Suncorp Super Netball
Kristiana Manu’a was at the centre of a controversial send-off in 2020. Image: Suncorp Super Netball

The controversy that had the most serious implications involved the Queensland Firebirds and the 2020 Indigenous Round. Despite the use of the competition’s only Indigenous player, Jemma Mi Mi, in a great deal of marketing and educational resources leading up to the round, Firebirds’ coach Rosalee Jenke failed to give Mi Mi even one minute of court time, even when the player in her position experienced a niggle late in the game. From this one incident, conversations about structural racism within netball—from grassroots to elite—began across the country and Netball Australia was forced to take action. The first step was a Declaration of Commitment to tackling the barriers faced by Indigenous people in netball, which was then followed by the State of the Game review—a larger document set to address a variety of issues within the sport. The report clearly calls out the need to invest in more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women at all levels of the game to ensure its transformation into a culturally safe space. Making structural change is not easy. It takes a lot of time, persistence, energy and commitment. Whether the recommendations of this report are implemented remains to be seen but will happen if fans continue to agitate for change and do not allow the problems of 2020 to be forgotten.

The upcoming season provides plenty of certainty around the logistical issues that 2020 was lacking, but in terms of the fate of the sport, things have never been more uncertain. The way the 2021 season pans out will provide plenty of illumination for fans, players and administrators alike, the future begins this weekend.

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