The NSW Swifts suffered many slim losses last year, and in 2018 with a new coach and new belief they’ve already scored more wins this season. Meanwhile, reigning premiers Sunshine Coast Lightning lost their first three matches to current top four teams, and won the next three to teams ranked below them heading into this clash – in what would be a litmus test for two apparently evenly-matched sides.

With so many tight games in the league, even a lapse of a few minutes can decide the game. Lightning were destined to rue their ghastly opening quarter, going down by 10 goals, with a quiet, somewhat stunned performance from their attack line. But they nearly reversed their fortunes totally in the second, coming back within four, and that set up the second half for a tense titanic struggle. In the end, the home team Swifts proved again they’d learned how to dig out a win, keeping themselves well in the hunt for finals with a three-goal victory.

Loose contested ball. Photo: Danny Dalton

In a blinding start that stunned everyone except the Swifts and their faithful, the home side leapt out to an intimidating 8-2 advantage in only five minutes. Both defensive lines chalked up deflections, but it was Sarah Klau (GK) and Maddy Turner (GD) for NSW that converted them into possession, and saw the ball crafted through to their accurate shooters. The attention from the Swifts defenders unsettled the Diamonds pairing of Caitlin Bassett (GS) and Steph Wood (GA), distracting them from their natural pattern.

Lighting captain Geva Mentor (GK) saw her teammates under pressure and later remarked, “I think it’s frustrating that each end’s different compared to what defenders get away with. But that’s not our game for Karla and I, we’re about trying to come through and not about that muscling up.”

“It’s good practise for our shooters to come up against that, because I think there’s a lot of defensive lines that will give them body throughout this competition.”

Lightning made moves to sharpen their defensive timing, with Karla Pretorius (GD) picking up an intercept, and Wood at the other end trying to inject her typical pace and nous. Laura Scherian (C), too, was dogged throughout the whole match, not letting any ball be taken comfortably, but costly in clocking up 12 total penalties.

Sunshine Coast’s steadiness was temporary however, as deceptive and economical moves from Sam Wallace (GS) made the feed to her obvious – Mentor at times look flat-footed and lost. Helen Housby (GA) also made a balanced contribution with six goals at 100% and four goal assists for the quarter. In their biggest quarter win for the year, the Swifts smacked the 2017 premiers 19-9.

Wallace (Swifts) made small but crafty moves, well-seen by her feeders. Photo: Danny Dalton

The second quarter began with more parity, before a gradual fightback from Lightning. A very rare opportunity for rebound was taken by Mentor but hurled straight into the hands of a spring-footed Paige Hadley (WA). The difference in defensive styles continued to be evident, the Swifts extremely tight on and blocking any return to the circle and jostling to push off the hold, the Lightning constantly moving feet around and off the body, looking for the touch at the right time.

The visitors also joined together to double-team Wallace at times, but Housby always took advantage with a front-cut and double play. The Swifts held the Lightning at arm’s length, and Maddy Proud (C) showed particularly patience and placement in the feed, just before Mentor called a tactical timeout halfway through the quarter with scores 27-17.

The timeout seemed to’ve done the trick for the Sunshine Coast, as their play still wasn’t slick but they nailed the next four goals, aided by a tenacious rebound from Mentor, and two offensive contacts against Wallace. Wood was the benefactor of the increased possession, forgetting her 2/3 67% stats in the first quarter with impressive 8/10 80% in the second.

The Lightning feeders warmed into clever work the first half progressed, demonstrating a tight and yet still improving combination. Kelsey Browne (WA) had had just two turnovers in 30 minutes, and Scherian none. This contrasted with Wallace, who was flawless in the first quarter but lost possession three times in the second, going a long way to explaining the change of momentum.

The Swifts also had a ghastly 18 penalties compared to Lighting’s six in the period. In eight minutes, the visitors clawed back six goals, trailing only 27-31 at the half time break.

After a slow start, Wood (Lightning) was difficult to contain. Photo: Danny Dalton

With Wood running rampant, Swifts coach Briony Akle replaced Turner with youngser Kate Eddy at goal defence. It was the hosts that took the first little break when Browne was called for stepping, and Wallace hit the subsequent two shots.

The Swifts lead 38-33 when Lightning called a tactical timeout, coach Noeline Taurua giving an avalanche of instructions to midcourt defenders Scherian and Madeline McAuliffe (WD). Some tough groundwork, home team captain Abbey McCulloch (WD) was able to deny any feeding dominance from Browne, the visitors instead using a three-pronged feeding approach to the towering Australian captain Bassett. It contrasted the leading goal assist stat of Maddy Proud (C), who finished with 27 for the match.

The third quarter ran mostly goal for goal, each team could gain possession but rarely were able to string together several authoritative plays. Lighting eventually levelled the scores at 40-apiece, prompting another timeout and the return of Turner at goal defence, Eddy across to the wing. While Eddy had her head spinning to find Browne and was dragged onto her body, contacting repeatedly, she was rescued by a canny intercept circle-edge from teammate Proud.

Although Lightning took the bonus point, it was Wallace opening up at the back with clever moves that gave NSW the small advantage, 45-43, heading into the final 15 minutes.

Hadley (Swifts) winning a tussle for a loose ball over Pretorius (Lightning). Photo: Danny Dalton

Inspiring words were spoken by McCulloch and Housby to their young team in the final break huddle, and Housby herself lead by example, deflecting a ball which was collected by Eddy. Every player showed renewed commitment, Hadley exemplary in answering tough defensive coverage with three or four re-offered moves and safe hands. The crowd became more and more involved, chanting constantly and acting like their own version of the video umpire after borderline calls.

Bassett was bent on secure close shots, using extra passes around the circle to reposition under relentless strong leaning from Klau (GK). The Sunshine Coast defenders were throwing everything at their opponents, sometimes too cheekily, with Mentor blatantly moving off drawing chuckles from the crowd, but McAuliffe’s deliberate hands on the ball circle edge receiving a warning from umpire Phippard.

Eddy (Swifts) had crucial input in the last part of the match. Photo: Danny Dalton

The Swifts were looking more composed, patient in attack, and picking the right time to go for intercepts. Eddy in particular energised her team with a bolt across in front of Browne, tipping the ball at full stretch and awarded a contact penalty.

This steadiness forced Lighting to call a timeout with the score against them 55-51, and the short break gave them a shot of luck in the arm. On the next similar defensive attempt, Eddy barely failed to secure dramatic possession from out of court, and moments later Bassett fumbled a difficult feed directly onto the post and regathered the ball right in her hands.

But in the end it was Wallace who was rock solid, missing only two shots for the match, always seen well by the feeders when mismatched against Pretorius, or holding lovely space against Mentor. With less than two minutes remaining and a lead of four, the Swifts’ faithful started to celebrate. Gaining two bonus points, NSW kept fourth spot on the ladder, winning their fifth match.

 

NSW Swifts 59 def Sunshine Coast Lightning 56
(19-9, 31-27, 45-43)

Player of the Match: Sam Wallace (Swifts)

Swifts
Wallace 43/45 96%
Housby 16/19 84%
59/64 92%

Lightning
Bassett 34/36 94%
Wood 22/25 88%
56/61 92%

 

Key stats

Swifts
Paige Hadley – 20 goal assists, 37 centre pass receives, 3 pickups, 4 turnovers
Maddy Proud – 27 goal assists, 3 pickups, 7 penalties, 5 turnovers
Maddy Turner – 3 gains, 2 intercepts, 3 deflections, 9 penalties
Sarah Klau – 3 gains, 4 deflections, 15 penalties

Lightning
Steph Wood – 11 goal assists, 18 centre pass receives, 6 turnovers
Kelsey Browne – 18 goal assists, 26 centre pass receives, 7 penalties, 6 turnovers
Laura Scherian – 20 goal assists, 4 pickups, 12 penalties, 3 turnovers
Karla Pretorius – 3 gains, 5 deflections, 4 pickups, 16 penalties
Geva Mentor – 7 gains, 3 intercepts, 6 deflections, 2 rebounds, 11 penalties

 

Starting line ups

NSW Swifts
GS Sam Wallace
GA Helen Housby
WA Paige Hadley
C Maddy Proud
WD Abbey McCulloch
GD Maddy Turner
GK Sarah Klau

Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Caitlin Bassett
GA Steph Wood
WA Kelsey Browne
C Laura Scherian
WD Madeline McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Geva Mentor

 

 

What they said

Briony Akle, Swifts coach

On her feelings on the match
“I’m happy. At the end of the day, we know every single one of these games is going to be to the death. So for us to get up by so many in the first quarter and actually keep ahead, which was our goal… I’m wrapt to be honest.”

“The week off has helped us mentally. We were coming into this game really refreshed, and they were a lot more focused than they’ve been in other games for our first quarter, and that’s something we’re learning every week, how much that focus going in sets you up for the rest of the game.”

“I think we’ll probably have that (inexperience) tag all year if it’s a close game, so the fact that we still pulled away and one is a testament to the girls sticking at it. Helen Housby just said in the group that last year they would’ve lost that. For them, it’s always a positive that they’ve come away with the win.”

On her opinion of the new bonus point system
“It is what it is for us, it’s a learning curve, and our focus is not on those bonus points, it’s to play well for those fifteen minutes at a time. Whatever that result is, if we play badly, we’re not going to win. I’ve just gotta focus on the bigger picture, and we needed the win. I need to take one game at a time, for me, that’s what we’ll focus on as a group. The crowd love (the rule). It keeps people interested.”

On whether the focus should be on quarters, or on smaller blocks of time in a match
“No, absolutely, it’s like minute by minute, and I’m sure every team talks about that process, minute by minute, or breaking it up into five minutes at a time. They’re the grand final winners last year, and for us to have a victory over them, we’ll take it.”

On Sam Wallace’s player of the match performance
“You’re playing a world’s best goal keeper, so, we have full admiration for how Geva can play week in and week out, and for her even to to get a player of the match against a quality opposition like her, it says a lot for Sammy to stay in that game.”

On Maddy Proud dominating the goal assists
“It’s not a tactic really. She’s a beautiful feeder, and if she can get the ball in her hand and deliver it well to Sammy and Helen, then we’ll keep doing it.”

On putting Kate Eddy to goal defence and then quickly to wing defence
“We just thought Steph Wood was coming into the game more. We had to try something a little bit different, and just making the change to wing defence on a shorter wing attack.”

 

Sam Wallace, Swifts

On what she believes she did to win the player of the match award against Mentor
“I have no idea to be honest! I did come out to play, and I need to be doing that each and every game. I mean, I respect Geva Mentor, I give her full credit as someone I look up to. No matter what, she’s a great player and I love her to death. But I know how she plays – she’s really clever, she’s really smart, her timing is really really good, so I just need to mix up my timing. In the second half I was just stagnant, I wasn’t moving as well as I was in the first quarter, so she got a little hold of me then.”

On whether she feels the stress when the other team has a big run on the scoreboard
“To be honest I do, because I feel like my team really depends on me. When I’m down, my body language and everything, they feed off my energy. So it takes me to pick them back up.”

On Proud’s large contribution in both defence and feeding the circle
“Definitely. Maddy Proud and I have a great chemistry off the court and on the court. That’s my neighbour actually. Not saying I don’t have chemistry with the other girls, but Maddy Proud and I have a really different kind of connection. We talk to each other like, ‘we need to do this we need two intercept, we need two deflections’, we just keep making up numbers in our head as the game go along.”

On what she’ll be looking for next week
“Look, the same intensity. We can’t drop our heads, especially when we are still in front. Composure, body language, show like if it was down by ten or something, sticking together as a team.

On why the Swifts instead of losing tight matches like in 2017, in 2018 they are winning them
“I just think it has to do with the environment, the new coaching staff, the belief she have in us. I don’t know… we just believe we don’t want to be that team from last year. We move on from that generation last year, they say we are young and inexperienced team, and we had to prove them no, we are not.”

 

Geva Mentor, Lightning

On why her team have struggled in 2018, compared to the success of 2017
“We spoke about it at the beginning of the season, and I think this competition’s gone up another level. Every team knows what their brand of netball is, and is really taking it to it. It’s exciting for the competition, each game can go ether way. For us the disappointing thing was our start, that first quarter really let us down, obviously we were in chase mode.”

“Positives to take from it – we did manage to claw back a ten-goal deficit, but we just can’t leave it down to umpires making key decisions at crucial times for us. We need to make sure that we push on ahead. There was a patch in that third quarter where we did draw it level, and that’s the time when we need to kick on. We’re an experienced enough group and we’ve got the skill level that we can do that.”

On whether she can see the tough muscle-up defence Swifts are using on her teammates
“I think we just need to be smarter with our ball. You can pick out different points throughout where maybe we weren’t on it enough or we weren’t taking the drives strong enough. Individually we each need to go away and focus on what we needed to do – that was, making sure there was more than one option towards the ball, we’re presenting, we’re taking the ball strong, not getting caught out wide. But all credit to Swifts, they played a good came today, and they came out of the blocks.”

On where the defensive commitment seen in the last quarter was in the first
“I don’t know to be honest with you, and if I knew that I would’ve zapped it in the bud in that first quarter. I think it’s just a little bit shell-shocked in that first one and expecting things to happen, but really we’ve gotta make sure we make it happen. We knew this side were gonna be tenacious and we knew they were gonna ride us all the way. Maybe that was a bit of a shock to start with. I definitely felt that, in defence, I was a little bit flat at the back there. It’s just about being able to juice yourself up quick enough and stay connected.”

On her opinion of Sam Wallace’s play
“It’s great to be able to play these different Caribbean-style shooters. There’s definitely a fair few of them in this competition now. She’s a nice girl, I like playing her – she had a good shot today, and probably definitely got the better of me, I just needed a bit quicker on my toes, come off the body a bit. I look forward to every battle I face against the shooters nowadays.”

“That’s what so great about this game now, it brings new challenges for you to try and think of where you can win that ball, and as a defender, keeps you on your toes. Maybe it’s not necessarily attacking where it’s landing, it’s trying to attack from where the ball’s coming from, so it’s the thing that I love about netball, it’s trying to mix it up in there, and trying new ways to win ball.”

On what coach Noeline Taurua will say to the team
“I think she knows we wear that one. Obviously some positives to take from it. We’re not happy the way we performed today, but you know, it’s mid-season, there’s still a long way to go. It’s not about holding your head down low, it’s about picking yourself up, and making sure we build.”

 

 

Report: Andrew Kennedy
Photos: Danny Dalton