The Games

Major Semi Final (winner to host the Grand Final, loser to host winner of Minor Semi Final next week)
Giants v West Coast Fever
Saturday August 11 at 3pm AEST in Sydney
Watch it LIVE on Channel Nine and the Netball Live app.

Minor Semi Final (winner to face loser of Major Semi Final)
Queensland Firebirds v Sunshine Coast Lightning
Sunday August 12 at 1pm AEST in Brisbane
Watch it LIVE on Channel Nine, 9Gem (WA only) and the Netball Live app.

 

Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

Past results this season
Results were split evenly between the teams, with home court advantage running with the winners. Each round match was decided by three or less goals, for a total of just nine goals separating the four encounters.

Giants v West Coast Fever
Round 6: Fever def Giants 63-61
Round 14: Giants def Fever 69-66

The games between Fever and Giants were feisty, physical encounters. Round 6 was perhaps the most controversial – Serena Guthrie had to leave the court under the blood rule and after mopping up, tried to roll her sock down to disguise the marks.

The umpires noticed and kept her off the court until she’d changed it. In a rookie error, replacement wing attack Kiera Austin had already left the court, and the Giants were forced to use just six players for two centre passes. It didn’t affect the scoring, but certainly added confusion to a close contest.

Round 14 was shaping up to be a massive blowout, with the Giants up by a whopping 14 goals at three quarter time. In the final term the Fever hit the court with renewed vigour, a few calls went their way and they steam rolled away to a 22-11 quarter win. While the Giants took the minor premiership, the final quarter showed that they can’t afford to be complacent.

Queensland Firebirds v Sunshine Coast Lightning
Round 2: Firebirds def Lightning 55-52
Round 9: Lightning def Firebirds 58-57

Despite being without Laura Geitz due to a back injury, the Firebirds proved too strong for their opponents in Round 2. Their 20-9 second quarter blew Lightning out of the water, who had to play catch up netball for the rest of the game. Lightning had a slow start to the season, losing their first three games as they struggled to adapt to the loss of Laura Langman.

However it was a different story in Round 9, with both teams level pegging for most of the match. Scores were level when, with just three seconds left on the clock, Caitlin Bassett scored the winning goal for Lightning. Player of the Match Steph Wood was in brilliant form, putting up 24 goals.

 

Photo: Simon Leonard.

 

Coaching Kudos
Noeline Taurua, Roselee Jencke and Julie Fitzgerald are big guns in the domestic coaching world, with plenty of finals experience and title wins to their names.

It’s Fitzgerald’s 20th year coaching at this level and the Giants will be keen to get the job done for their mentor. However, don’t underestimate what Stacey Marinkovich brings to the Fever. Since starting at the Perth Orioles as a fresh faced 21-year old, she’s been the heart and soul of the club and her passion burns brightly within the team.

All four coaches have a wealth of knowledge, a kick-arse motivational speech or side-eye and most particularly a player-centric approach. They’ve melded ten individuals into closely knit units and it shows out on court.

 

Photo: May Bailey.

 

Experience counts
Firebirds are clear winners in this area, having made four of the last five grand finals. Most of their starting seven know what it takes to win a title, while their few novice players haven’t put a foot wrong all season.

The Giants also have match winners all over the court, with five of their players either world or Commonwealth champions. As last year’s beaten grand finalists, they will be keen to take one step further and hoist the trophy.

Lightning won the inaugural title in 2017 but have found Life After Langman a little more challenging. Her replacement, Maddy McAuliffe, took a while to adjust to the wing defence bib, but has built into the season well.

Fever have the least finals experience, but the success-starved club will take little notice of the tag. Marinkovich didn’t experience a finals campaign in her ten playing years at the club and has reminded the group to treasure the experience.

 

Photo: Marcela Massey.

 

Injuries
While all four sides will be nursing sore and weary bodies at the business end of the season, Fever have been the most impacted – literally. Stacey Francis suffered back spasms during last Saturday’s game against the Giants, while Ingrid Colyer and Verity Charles both fell heavily after clumsy challenges.

Charles has been cleared of an ACL injury, but it’s unclear what underlying pathology still might be present and whether her knee will recover in time for the Semi Final. Fever will travel to Sydney with 11 players, taking Jess Eales in case Charles doesn’t receive medical clearance to play. Eales is a training partner and appeared in Fever colours last season following an ACL injury to Shannon Eagland.

 

The travel factor
Fever are the big losers in the semi-final stakes, being the only team who have to rack up some serious out-of-state frequent flyer points. Fortunately for the Lightning, Brisbane is just a short hike down the M1.

Conversely, Fever’s presence in the finals is going to be a major thorn in the side for other teams. To hoist the trophy, Firebirds and Lightning will have to travel to Perth at least once, while if the Giants should lose their semi, they potentially could also be hopping on a westbound plane for a grand final. The Perth Arena is a cauldron, with some of the largest and certainly the most raucous home crowds this season.

The impact of air travel, plus the difficulty of dealing with a shortened training week and unfamiliar home base is a challenge no matter how experienced a group is at doing it.

 

Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

Who’s got the biggest gun(s)
It’s a toss-up whether Kim Green or Serena Guthrie is the Giants’ biggest star, but one could lean towards Guthrie. She’s been in extraordinary form since transitioning from a wing defence into a centre and is hard to catch once she turns the afterburners on.

Jhaniele Fowler rightfully occupies the position for Fever. Always athletic, the powerfully built athlete has added movement and a distance shot to her game since arriving in the west.

The Firebirds bookends can’t be separated: Laura Geitz and Romelda Aiken have been there forever and are keys to their success. Although Aiken is less confident to the post than in previous years, she mops up what she misses.

Geva Mentor has been playing at international level for 20 incredible years and is still improving, so just nudges out Caitlin Bassett as the Lightning’s big game performer.

 

The unsung hero
While every team boasts an impressive line up of stars, there are quiet achievers who can have a big impact on matches.

For the Giants and Fever respectively, Jamie-Lee Price and Ingrid Colyer have matched up twice on each other this season, and the team’s fortunes mirrored their individual ascendancy. Colyer had the better of Price in the Fever win, while in Round 14 Price was superb in keeping Colyer relatively quiet.

Fever’s game plan depends heavily on their wing attack being free for the centre pass, leaving Medhurst as the link into Fowler. With regular court time Colyer has gained in confidence and skill, but she will need to do more preliminary work to free herself of Price, whose ability to shut down her opponent was recently rewarded with selection in the Australian squad.

Kim Jenner has sat on the Firebirds bench for more than half of the season but has taken the game on with both hands since earning starting rights. She’s picked up nine intercepts and 14 deflections in her last four games – including seven intercepts in her last game – and along with teammate Tara Hinchliffe has Australian goal defence written all over her.

Maddy McAuliffe’s second half of the season has been sizzling; she’s picked off eight intercepts and eight deflections in the last four weeks. While she’s been heavily penalised at times, McAuliffe provides crucial protection for Lightning’s defensive circle.

 

Photo: Marcela Massey.

 

The X-factor
Players who can lift themselves and others around them when there’s a game to be won, are a rare breed of athlete.

Jo Harten is that player for the Giants. Incredibly for a goal attack, she regularly puts up more than 30 goals in a game. Add to that her work rate on the centre pass, defensive capability and blistering passes and she’s a serious weapon.

While Nat Medhurst’s shooting rate is at the opposite end of the spectrum, her importance to Fever can’t be underestimated. Her precision, speed and game sense are second to none, and the bigger the game, the more she relishes it.

Gretel Tippett is a complete athlete. Tall and athletic, she powers through in attack and defence for the Firebirds. This year she increased her shooting rate, and regularly puts up more than 20 goals per game at a tick under 90% accuracy.

For Lightning, Karla Pretorius pulls off speccy intercepts when the opposition least expects it. She’s terrier-like in covering the ground and has formed a rare partnership with captain Geva Mentor.

 

Statistics don’t lie
Home court advantage is running at an average of 63% this season, a number which would be significantly increased if the winless Thunderbirds were removed from the equation.

Interestingly though, home court advantage was sitting at 75% in the first half of the competition, but has dropped to a win ratio of just 50% in the latter half. This would suggest that other factors aside, the games are there for the taking.

Delving into matches, the top four teams average two strong quarters per match, and two where they struggle. The Giants are relatively consistent across a match, although their first quarter has been their worst across the season.

Fever have been peaking in the third quarter, winning 73% of them, with their final term the worst at just a 45% win rate. Based on these figures it would suggest that if the Giants are ahead at three quarter time they will win the game. However, given that Fever outstripped the Giants 22 -11 in the last quarter of Round 14, the Giants won’t be able to relax until the final whistle.

The Firebirds start games strongly, winning most of their first and second quarters, then fade badly to just a 36% success rate in the fourth.

Lightning are strongest in their second and third quarters, but also have just a 36% success rate in the fourth. Those figures would suggest that whichever team has its nose in front at three quarter time will be difficult to overtake.

 

Photo: Simon Leonard.

 

Where are they vulnerable?

Giants
A number of players wear their heart on their sleeve, and while passion is priceless, they will need to keep their cool. A close score line, or a disadvantageous umpiring call can see a few players looking frazzled, with their games suffering accordingly.

West Coast Fever
The team from the west have looked vulnerable on the road this season. In their three away losses, they’ve looked flat from the first whistle. The Fever will need to be firing on all cylinders from the moment they hit the court.

Queensland Firebirds
They are the only team without a third shooter sitting on the bench, and will be in serious trouble if Romelda Aiken or Gretel Tippett should be injured. If that unfolds, expect Caitlyn Nevins to slide into goal attack and feed the shooter.

Sunshine Coast Lightning
With four players returning from the Commonwealth Games, they were slow to settle into their work this season. Consistency has been an issue ever since, with a few players having quiet patches throughout matches. Karla Pretorius, Caitlin Bassett and Steph Wood will all be looking for sixty minute performances.

 

Adding spice
There are plenty of extraneous factors which will impact the games. Susan Pettitt is retiring from all forms of netball at the end of the season. She’s been rock solid all season, but will the pressure of the occasion become a factor for her or her Giants’ teammates?

Words have been bandied between the Lightning and the Firebirds this week, with Geva Mentor claiming that the Firebirds don’t show their northern neighbours enough respect. With the loser evicted from the finals race, Queensland bragging rights will add spice to the contest.

With the Silver Ferns in search of a new coach, Noeline Taurua seems the most likely person to take over the job. Will the uncertainty over her future have an impact on Lightning?

Players’ contract negotiations are also unfolding in the background. With some players set to move franchises, and others being told they are unwanted, there will be some delicate conversations occurring which may impact player morale.

Also of interest is the umpiring. Collectively, they’ve done a sterling job this season, but finals are a whole different pressure cooker. There were some overly physical clashes in the in the Giants-Fever match last weekend, while the Queensland big sister/little sister relationship could also result in fireworks. Look for the umpires to take control from the start.

 

Photo: May Bailey.

 

The final tip
Number have been crunched, heads scratched and the fence will be firmly sat on – the games are simply too close to call.

You could go with home court advantage and tip Giants and Firebirds to get over the line in two hard-fought encounters. However, if sentiment rules the roost, perhaps you’ll favour Fever and Lightning to take out the wins. Either way, it’s going to be a feast of super netball.

 

Words: Jenny Sinclair
Cover image: May Bailey