For the first time since 2019, Super Netball held its Team Girls Cup pre-season tournament this weekend. Erin Delahunty takes us through the talking points.
Ahead of the season proper, which begins on March 26, all eight Super Netball sides assembled at Melbourne’s Parkville Stadium for a three-day hit-out, providing a glimpse of sides’ form and potential line-ups across four shortened games each.
By Sunday afternoon, last season’s rankings had been flipped, with wooden spooners the Melbourne Vixens taking out the pre-season title without dropping a game and beating the West Coast Fever 45/43 in the final.
Reigning premiers the NSW Swifts—hit hard by Covid isolation and injuries—finished last after being humbled by state rivals and 2021 grand final opponents the Giants 41/27.
The Swifts were without coach Briony Akle, who had to isolate after being deemed a close contact, and her replacement, assistant Bec Bulley fell ill over the weekend, leaving two injured players, shooters Helen Housby and Sam Wallace, to coach just nine fit players on Sunday.
The long-suffering Adelaide Thunderbirds, who won just five matches last season, surprised most, finishing third after beating Collingwood and the Giants in early rounds and taking Sunshine Coast Lightning to the cleaners 53/32 on the final day.
Here are four things we learned out of the weekend:
Led by perhaps the best defensive line in the league, the Vixens look irresistibly good
While much of the credit for the Vixens’ pre-season title rightly belongs to young shooters Rahni Samason and Ruby Barkmeyer—who replaced Malawian Mwai Kumwenda, who was isolating and recruit Keira Austin, still making her way back after knee surgery, the defence end was a revelation.
A line boasting current and past Diamonds Jo Weston and Emily Mannix, 2020 grand final star Kate Eddy, and former Fever defender Olivia Lewis was always going to be good, but in action, it was spectacular.
With her embarrassment of defensive riches, coach Simone McKinnis was able to mix and match her line-ups throughout the tournament, using the foursome across the three bibs—and even threw Kate Moloney into wing defence in the final.
In the play-off match against the West Australians— the side the Vixens beat in the 2020 league final—a disciplined approach saw the Victorian defensive group give away just 11 contacts and six obstructions, compared to 26 contacts and nine obstructions by Fever defenders.
A spectacular intercept by Eddy on circle edge in the first quarter was the only moment of real “flashiness”, with other ball mostly won through grinding consistency, something coach McKinnis was known for in her playing career.
Samason, who finished with 30 goals from 37 attempts, and Watson, who had 15 feeds, eight goal assists, and two intercepts, including one in the dying moments, also starred for the Vixens, along with workhorse captain Kate Moloney, who was named match MVP.
Moloney said the Vixens had worked hard in the pre-season. “We finished on the bottom of the ladder last year… and that puts a real fire in your belly,” she said.
“We don’t want to be there again. This trophy isn’t the one we want. It’s the one later in the year that we want our hands on. So a lot of hard work to go still.”
Kelsey Browne & Kim Ravaillion are going to make Stacey Marinkovich’s job very tough
In what is truly a “first-world netball problem”, Australian Diamonds coach Stacey Marinkovich is going to have a headache selecting a midcourt for the post-Super Netball Commonwealth Games in July and August if the weekend is anything to go by.
The squad currently includes Liz Watson, Kate Moloney, Ash Brazill, Paige Hadley, and Jamie-Lee Price, but Firebird Kim Ravaillion and Pie Kelsey Browne, who currently sit outside the squad, showed they want in.
Ravaillion—who has played 60 tests in green and gold and is this year captaining the Firebirds for the first time, and Browne put in several solid performances and showed versatility playing in numerous positions.
“Rav” as she’s affectionately known, played with calmness despite a raft of changes to personnel over the off-season and looked fitter than ever—which is a high bar given she’s long been regarded the fittest netballer in the world.
Browne’s best showing saw her record 24 feeds, 20 with an attempt, 16 goal assists, as well as a gain and an intercept in her side’s final game, a 52/50 loss to Ravaillion’s Firebirds.
In the Pies’ 48/38 win over the Giants on Saturday, Browne was so ball-hungry she found herself with a caution, then a warning in quick succession in the last quarter.
Browne, who has played 18 tests, isn’t shying away from her desire to represent her country again.
“I would absolutely love to go to the Commonwealth Games. I would never deny that. I’ve just got to play consistently (this season), put out some really good performances. The group at the moment, it’s going to be hard to crack into, but I would love to do that,” she said at the season launch in Melbourne last week.
Noongar woman, shooting star Donnell Wallam ready for a Super Netball contract … now
The deadly performance of First Nations athlete Donnell Wallam, who has played in the UK Superleague but never held a full Super Netball contract, was the talk of the tournament. And rightly so.
Wallam, a Kaniyan Noongar woman, was added to the Queensland Firebirds’ Team Girls Cup squad after starting GS, Jamaican Romelda Aiken George, announced she was pregnant and wouldn’t play in Melbourne.
The 27-year-old West Australian is on a “train and trial” deal until the end of the month, hoping to secure a place as either a training partner or permanent replacement player. If she gets the nod, she’ll become just the second indigenous player in the league, along with teammate Jemma Mi Mi.
Playing a total of seven quarters in three games at the weekend, Wallam shot 62 from 73, including five super shots, for an average accuracy of 84%.
In her team’s one-goal win over the Swifts on Saturday, she shot 21/23 at 91%; more than respectable figures for any shooter in the world’s best league. It’s even more admirable given Wallam recently battled Covid.
Her ability to come off the hold at the precise right moment, work the baseline when needed and shoot from anywhere – moves she perfected playing for the Leeds Rhinos in the UK – make her unlike any other goaler in the competition and tough to match up.
New Firebird, Eboni Usoro-Brown described Wallam’s performance as exceptional. “She’s absolutely lethal under the post,” she said.
“She was so nervous going onto the court, but she absolutely killed it, so kudos to her. She’s been working so hard in the gym and it’s really great to see her perform really well.”
If, how, and when Wallam might work her way into the Firebirds team remains a mystery, with coach Megan Anderson playing her cards very close to her chest when asked about the possibility at the weekend, but one thing is clear, she is cherry ripe.
Unlike 35-year-old former Silver Fern Maria Folau, who is also said to be in the Firebirds’ sights, she represents the future of Australian netball.
Despite open borders, Covid threatens continuity of the season unless squad sizes are increased
If Super Netball bosses needed any reminder that Covid will cast a long shadow over the 2022 season – despite an end to state border closures and localised lockdowns – they had a case study in the winless NSW Swifts at the weekend.
Without coach Briony Akle, who was isolating as a close contact, and her replacement Bec Bulley, who fell ill in Melbourne, and just nine fit players available through injury, the reigning premiers limped to the line on Sunday, losing in what was a pretty embarrassing fashion to the Giants.
Their predicament gave weight to recent calls from players, pundits, and fans to extend squad sizes from the usual 10 fully contracted players to at least 12, to enable lower-paid training partners to travel.
Swifts’ co-captain Paige Hadley, Collingwood star Kelsey Browne and commentator Madi Browne all called for such wider squads at the official launch of the season in Melbourne last week.
Hadley, who explained her side has seven players living across just two households, said the possibility of losing multiple teammates to isolation was nerve-racking.
“We could lose three players (in one go) with a close contact and that leaves you with seven players for a match, that’s tough. Twelve (in a travelling squad), in terms of security, would be good,” she said.
Being out for seven days as a contact presents “a little bit of a concern” for Collingwood’s Browne, who highlighted how contagious the new Omicron strain is. “I would love to see extended squads. We’ve got a great group of training partners, and a lot of depth at Collingwood this year, so for sure.”
Her sister, now retired and commentating for new broadcaster Fox Sports, agreed and saw it as a potential positive.
“Some people are worried about (the number of) imports in the league, but if we’ve got extended squads, it’s time those young ones can get. It would also give way more opportunity to some of those young girls that are just like, ‘I want to get in the door!”