Erin Delahunty looks into Super Netball’s “season from hell”, which saw league bosses and clubs constantly pivoting in an effort to keep ahead of Covid.
It all came to a close on Saturday, with the NSW Swifts taking out their second premiership in three years. Briony Akle’s charges lost just five matches on their march to the title, overcoming NSW rival the Giants 63-59 in a one-sided final at Brisbane’s Nissan Arena after the closest season on record.
An NSW derby—and one between Akle and her old coach Julie Fitzgerald—was a fitting end, given the sacrifices made by the two sides. After leaving Sydney on June 23 for what they thought was a week, the teams were on the road for close to 70 days and relocated to four states.
Here are five big talking points out of the year that was.
1. Vulnerability isn’t a dirty word, was key to Swifts’ success
While the word tough rightfully came up time and time again across the Covid-disrupted season, it was another quality that the NSW Swifts in particular drew on in 2021: vulnerability.
After her side’s win Saturday, Akle, who missed a game because she was caught up in an exposure site, reflected on the power of openness.
“These guys [players] have seen me at the bottom of my lows and [allowed me] to be vulnerable, I think Covid has taught everyone that,” she said.
“There’s no hiding from the fact everyone is suffering in different ways. Yes, we got to play our season and it was a difficult season, but to be vulnerable (was important). We just had to ride the wave together.”
2. Super Netball premiership medals pair well with Olympic ‘rose gold’
With the decider held in Covid-free Brisbane, both teams were able to celebrate their tough season out on the town Saturday night.
As is tradition, the Swifts donned their premiership medals for a tour of a few establishments, but they bumped into someone with an equally impressive piece of jewellery; none other than Australian Boomer, Olympic bronze medallist Patty Mills.
The Swifts shared an image on social media of shooter Helen Housby and midcourt Tayla Fraser with a smiling Mills, showing off their spoils and joking he could be a handy addition to the side next year.
3. The competition needs to consider a match review system
Calls for a Super Netball match review system of some sort have been growing louder in recent seasons, given a number of high-profile incidents and the ever-increasing physicality of the game more generally.
An incident in the final—which saw a clear push in the back from Giants keeper Sam Poolman on Swifts shooter Sam Wallace missed by the officiating umpire—again brought the issue to the fore.
Asked about it post-match, Swifts boss Akle strongly backed a match review system. “The players are getting fitter and faster, stronger and there are some big hits out there, so it’s probably the next step in our game,” she said.
4. League dodged an ugly controversy when Fever lost preliminary
The West Coast Fever’s preliminary final loss to eventual runner-up the Giants last weekend saw the league dodge a bullet, reputationally speaking.
That’s because Fever came into the season carrying what many perceived to be a lenient penalty for “unprecedented” and “deliberate” salary cap breaches in 2018 and 2019.
A league investigation found that in season 2018, Fever went 19.7% or $127,954 over the cap and in 2019, it went $168,659 or 25.3% over. As a result, the club was fined $300,000 (half suspended) and stripped of 12 competition points, equal to three games. The side quickly overcame the penalty though and played finals.
If Fever had of won the premiership, it would have left a dark cloud hanging over the competition.
5. The good of social media triumphed over the bad
While the ugliness of anonymous social media abuse was felt by Super Netball players this year, the league’s clubs and stars also led the way in delivering engaging and uplifting content.
After her side’s loss to Fever in Perth, Giants shooter Jo Harten shared a vile message she received on Instagram, which called her an “ugly bitch” and urging her to “die”. Players, clubs, commentators and fans quickly came out in support of Harten, declaring enough is enough.
At the same time, clubs and players have stepped up their digital games.
From the NSW Swifts’ frantic, funny in-game tweets and clever video montages to Lightning’s promo shoot blooper reel to laugh-out-loud TikToks from Vixens Jo Weston and Emily Mannix and Swift Sophie Garbin, social media has emerged as a way for fans to genuinely connect.