Sunday 26th August at 11am WST/1pm EST, Perth Arena. To be telecast on Channel 9/Netball Live App.

After a tough and enthralling season, West Coast Fever and Sunshine Coast Lightning are set to play out an epic encounter in the 2018 Suncorp Super Netball grand final. Little has separated the two sides across the regular season: Fever were victorious in both previous matches this year, albeit by a one goal margin on each occasion.

West Coast Fever were disappointed with their seventh place in 2017, and across the nine month long preseason pared their skills and game plan back to the basics, building a foundation from the bottom up. Nine of last year’s players continued to develop their teamwork, while Jamaican superstar Jhaniele Fowler was the recruiting catch of the year.

Fever finished the 2018 regular season in 2nd place, following a bruising run home against three of the top four sides. In round 14 they had an untidy away loss against Giants, then exploded out of the blocks in the major semi-final to set up their first ever home grand final.

In contrast Lightning had an interrupted preseason with four of their players returning from Commonwealth Games duty, and started slowly as they adjusted to life without Laura Langman. They steamrolled cellar dwellers Thunderbirds and Magpies in the last few rounds before finishing with a win against the Vixens that evicted them from the finals. Ranked fourth on the ladder, Lightning hit a rich vein of form, knocking off both the Firebirds and the Giants en route to their second consecutive grand final appearance.

Jess Anstiss (Fever) and Maddy McAuliffe (Lightning). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

2018 ROUND MATCHES

Round Three: Fever defeated Lightning 56 – 55
Fever took on last year’s premiers at Sippy Downs in a nerve-racking encounter where the lead changed 13 times. Both goal shooters were kept to less than forty goals, with goal attacks Nat Medhurst (17/21) and Steph Wood (22/25) instrumental in breaching the gap. For the Fever Ingrid Colyer dominated, taking 32 centre passes, while Courtney Bruce hauled in six intercepts. Karla Pretorius and Geva Mentor got their hands to plenty of ball for the Lightning, picking off six intercepts and eleven deflections between them.

Both sides struggled to use the turnovers they created, with Lightning (30%) just shading the Fever’s (23%) conversion rate. Fever had 19 more penalties than their opposition, but despite lagging in most statistical areas of play scraped home with the win.

Round Ten: Fever defeated Lightning 59 – 58
In an attacking game the shooters from each side went on a goal scoring spree, with Jhaniele Fowler (50/56) and Caitlin Bassett (43/47) strong under the post. Fever struggled defensively with just two intercepts and seven deflections. Lightning weren’t much better: of their four intercepts and 12 deflections, three of the intercepts were taken by attackers Steph Wood and Laura Scherian. Both sides went to their bench in a bid to add defensive pressure, with Erena Mikaere, Jacqui Russell, Madi McAuliffe (Lightning) and Shannon Eagland (Fever) all injected into the game at different points.

Kelsey Browne was outstanding with 24 centre pass receives and 16 goal assists, while Nat Medhurst shone leading all attacking statistics for the Fever. Both teams improved on their turnover conversion rate from round three, with Fever (56%) shading Lightning (40%) in this game. A high centre pass conversion rate was a feature of the game, with Lightning (78%) a little better than Fever (73%).

The lead changed just three times as the Fever overcame a slow start to hit the front after half time. They were overhauled briefly in the final quarter, before putting their foot down for another one goal margin.

 

THEIR BIGGEST STRENGTH
While Jhaniele Fowler is a formidable target for the Fever, it’s their full court defensive pressure that gets the big tick of approval. If a turnover occurs, Fever transition into defensive mode immediately, clogging the central corridor and pushing their opposition wide. Lightning like to play the ball around in their defensive third, resetting until space opens further up the court. If Fever can stick to their game plan, Lightning will find it hard to move the ball through court. Any gains by the Fever in their attacking zone will give them a quick second bite at the cherry in goals.

Lightning’s biggest weapon is the combination of Geva Mentor and Karla Pretorius, the most punishing defensive duo in the league. Mentor is an expert at moving her opponent away from comfortable shooting range, and additional passes then taken to move closer to goal provide an opportunity for Pretorius to pounce on the ball. Pretorius has been outstanding form, leading the competition for intercepts and sitting fifth on the deflection table. Kaylia Stanton could potentially enter the game as a taller option to pass over Pretorius’ lanky arms.

Jhaniele Fowler (Fever). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

THEIR BIGGEST VULNERABILITY
Both teams’ vulnerability lies in the availability of their midcourt. Fever are most comfortable when Ingrid Colyer is available for the centre pass, leaving Nat Medhurst and Verity Charles as second and third phase options to feed the circle. If Colyer is shut down, Medhurst is dragged further up court, making longer passes into Jhaniele Fowler a risk. Fever will need to be conscious of working the ball closer to Fowler should this be the case, because Geva Mentor will be waiting to pounce on any stray balls.

Lightning take more time getting the ball to the perimeter of the circle, from which point Steph Wood and Kelsey Browne are at their most damaging. Wood is particularly lethal when she cuts and drives around the circle and along the baseline. If she’s forced to play as an option up court she is less available around the goal circle, drifting out of the game for short periods. The midcourters will need to work the ball into her to shoot or feed onto Caitlin Bassett, rather than forcing her to play high into the mid third to retrieve it.

 

HOME COURT ADVANTAGE
Home court advantage has counted for nothing in the 2018 final series and is currently sitting at 0%. All three games have been won by the away team, but Fever will look to feed off the energy of one of the most vociferous fan bases in Suncorp Super Netball. The Perth Arena is all but sold out, and the capacity crowd should be a sea of green this Sunday.

For the Lightning it will be their fourth game in a row on the road, and jet lag could potentially catch up with them. In the last four weeks they’ve travelled to Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and now Perth. However Jacqui Russell said, “We’ve been diligent around our recovery, and I don’t think it will be a factor.”

Fever travelled to Sydney two weeks running in Round 14 and the semi-final, and used the extra time to refresh sore bodies. Over the weekend they had match play against a side composed of training partners and the WA men’s team.

Verity Charles (Fever). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

TRIVIAL SNIPPETS
Sunshine Coast radio station Hot 91 has taken the unusual step of banning any Western Australian bred music in the lead up to the grand final. “That includes INXS, Baby Animals, Jebediah, Cassie Davis, Birds of Tokyo, Eurogliders, Eskimo Joe and John Butler Trio”, according to program director Ronnie Stanton.

Travel plans for the grand final have been thrown into chaos as the grand final clashes with the Perth City to Surf Fun Run, which is on at the same time. With over 45 000 participants and many more spectators, it’s one of the biggest events on the WA sporting calendar.

Lightning players tip the scales in terms of international experience, with a combined 250 caps compared to Fever’s 207 caps.

The record attendance at a domestic netball match is 13 314, at Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney in 2016. Can Fever fans smash this record?

The league’s three shortest players – Kelsey Browne (164cm), Ingrid Colyer (165cm) and Laura Scherian (167cm) and two of the four tallest players – Annika-Lee Jones (197cm) and Jhaniele Fowler (196cm) – will be taking part in the grand final this weekend.

Now that Leana de Bruin, Susan Pettitt and Bec Bulley have all retired, Geva Mentor and Nat Medhurst are the two oldest players in the competition. Both 34 this year, they are still considered by most to be in the prime of their career. Medhurst also holds the record for the most national league (SSN, ANZC and CBT) caps by a player not yet retired, and will reach 220 in the grand final.

Jhaniele Fowler has entered the record books. She has scored more goals in a season, and more goals in a match, than any other player in SSN or TTNL history. Until the grand final is complete, the jury is still out on her exact figures.

Stacey Francis (Fever). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

THE COACHES – HEAD TO HEAD – FEVER/LIGHTNING

Stacey Marinkovich/Noelene Taurua
Stacey Marinkovich first joined the Perth Orioles as a fresh-faced 22 year old. She’s now Western Australian netball royalty, having been an Orioles player and captain, and coach of pathway teams before taking on her current role with the West Coast Fever. Marinkovich has driven a player-centric culture at the club and is renowned for her measured presence on the bench. This is just her second finals campaign.

Verity Charles said, “I’ve never seen a coach grow so quickly over one year. It’s been a game changer for us. Stacey is very meticulous in everything she does and is very calm. She never looks rattled, and as a player if you look to your bench and your coach looks calm, that’s a big help. But it’s been all the staff, we’ve got an army behind us.”

Nat Medhurst said, “People talk about the development of players, but her development in such a short amount of time is truly amazing. The way in which Stacey manages and understands her players, to be able to get the most of them, is a credit to her.”

Noelene Taurua is one of the most highly credentialled domestic coaches in the netball world. Between 2008 and 2017 her side has reached the finals in every season she’s coached. Her enviable winning ratio of 72% in that period is the highest in the competition. Known and loved for respecting that her players are people with lives away from the court, she’s an inspiration to all who play under her.

Jacqui Russell said, “Her knowledge of the game is incredible. She tells is like it is, there’s no sweating the small stuff. She can help us put structures and plans into place, but she also understands how important it is to follow your instinct and play with your gut feel. Noelene gives players the freedom to utilise their strengths. So her understanding of that balance has been crucial to us.”

Maddy McAuliffe (Lightning). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

THE PLAYERS – HEAD TO HEAD – FEVER/LIGHTNING

Courtney Bruce – goal keeper/Caitlin Bassett – goal shooter
While it seems like Courtney Bruce has had a meteoric rise over the last 18 months, she’s been at the Fever for seven seasons. Hobbled by stress fractures in her earlier years, Bruce has finally been able to string consistent court time together. She’s a powerful athlete, has blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reflexes, and contests well in the air.

Stacey Francis said of her teammate, “Courtney was the driving factor for me to come to West Coast Fever. I thrive in strong partnerships and I just loved her attacking style of play, and her movement and athleticism.”

“Our partnership has been a matter of building trust and knowing what we are willing to cover and to go for. Our switches and movement in the circle are becoming seamless, and although we give away some height, we’re athletic and constantly striving to improve. We have a really healthy level of respect for each other. It’s a happy circle.”

Bruce and her likely opponent, Caitlin Bassett, both played for the same club – Demons – in the Southern Districts Association in their younger years. The Diamonds captain will be a formidable opponent – she’s just five years older than Bruce but has 66 more national test caps and 124 more national league appearances to her name. Bassett is always rock steady, and can be relied on to pot goals in the tightest of situations.

Caitlin Bassett (Lightning). Photo: Steve McLeod.

Stacey Francis – goal defence/Steph Wood – goal attack
The English international is in the form of her life, which she credits to her move to West Coast Fever. Stacey Francis said, “When I came to Fever I felt I’d be playing an integral role within the team and my qualities and attributes were what the team needed. I didn’t have to change in any way, the person that I am has been really respected, and I think that level of confidence has boosted my own performance.”

“To feel so valued and that you’re constantly contributing both on and off the court in an environment is really empowering. I feel I am playing my best netball, and that I have more room for improvement with Fever. I’m very passionate and loyal, and I feel very valued and respected back which is rewarding and refreshing.”

Francis is regularly found patrolling the top of the circle, a position from which she either closes down space or goes hunting for intercepts. Her most likely opponent is Steph Wood, a powerful athlete who combines deceptive speed with superb timing. Francis will need to be at her best to limit Wood’s trademark drives across the top of the circle or along the baseline. Very little fazes Wood as she rocks back on the shot, and she reliably puts up big numbers in most games.

Teammate Jacqui Russell said, “Steph has really good court smarts. She understands when to move the ball through quickly, and then when to slow it up or change the pace. She is a very intelligent, attacking netballer.”

Jess Anstiss – wing defence/Kelsey Browne – wing attack
The quietly spoken wing defence is a rising star in the netball world. 22 year old Jess Anstiss was Fever’s MVP in her inaugural 2017 season, and was recently rewarded with a call up to the national squad. Her work rate across the ground sees her regularly snaffle the ball, and her role in keeping Kim Green relatively quiet in the semi-final was instrumental in Fever’s win. Anstiss said, “When I play on Kim Green I know I can get under her skin a little bit, so that’s my goal going into the game. Once she starts showing that emotion on court you know you are getting to her.”

While the Fever lack finals experience, it’s an area that has been addressed by the club. Anstiss explained, “We will have another sports psych session during the week, to help deal with our nerves and controlling emotions before the grand final. My main thing is focusing on the game, and not worrying about the hype, the papers or social media.”

Anstiss will come up against Kelsey Browne in the grand final, who has been in blistering touch recently. Browne has well and truly stepped out of the shadow of her older sister, Madi Robinson, to become one of the inform wing attacks of the competition. She’s the Lightning’s chief playmaker through the attacking court, and speeds onto the circle edge from where her feeds to Bassett and Wood are impossible to stop.

Kelsey Browne (Lightning) and Jess Anstiss (Fever). Photo: Steve McLeod.

Verity Charles – centre/Laura Scherian – centre
It is Charles second stint at the Fever, having previously been with the club in 2012/13. She’s added maturity to her game, and now combines pace with an ability to hold the ball up or reset rather than fling a risky pass. She’s part of an unheralded engine room, which suits her nicely. Charles explained, “We don’t have the height, so we have to be quick and strong. I’ve really enjoyed that we’ve flown under the radar. We’re not big names. We get in, do our job and get out without fuss. That’s worked in our favour because the media don’t light us up.”

“Last year we (the midcourt) realised our standards weren’t good enough and we’ve lifted them. The four of us are extremely close, and we’ve built a relationship where there’s no beating around the bush now. We might give feedback that sounds harsh, but it’s coming from good place. We’ve really done the hard work.”

Charles will be well matched against another short speedster, Laura Scherian, who first played with the Firebirds in 2010. She didn’t receive another contract until coach Noelene Taurua recognised her worth at the start of the Suncorp Super Netball league in 2017. Scherian is a strong linking player through court, who can step up to feed the circle if Browne is well covered.

Ingrid Colyer – wing attack/Madi McAuliffe
While Ingrid Colyer has been at the Fever since 2015, it was only last year that she started to receive regular court time. Confidence has come with minutes played, and coach Stacey Marinkovich said, “The biggest thing for Inga is that she has a huge amount of speed and that change of direction. She just has to back it in and take the gaps that she’s given. She gets absolutely hounded out on court. She gets a lot of hits, but that’s why she’s so strong and powerful.”

Colyer is at her best when taking first phase from the centre pass, then driving hard into a pocket – a move which not only makes her available for the pass but clears defenders from the top of the circle. Her most likely opponent is Madi McAuliffe, who has looked increasingly comfortable at wing defence as the season’s progressed. It’s been a big job to fill the hole left by superstar Laura Langman, but McAuliffe now regularly gets hand to ball to create turnovers.

Nat Medhurst – goal attack/Karla Pretorius – goal defence
The influence of Nat Medhurst should never be underestimated. She controls the attacking third of the court and is the second most prolific feeder of the competition. Her movement and precision on the pass is exceptional, and when a game heats up, she’s ready to drive the Fever home. That said, Medhurst knows all too well the importance of not overplaying her hand. She said, “It’s important that we stick to our behaviours when we get challenged. That we don’t go back into bad habits or play as individuals.”

“If you try to do too much and save the game, you end up more disconnected as a unit. We also need to make sure we keep the voice, and that our defensive efforts continue. That provides so much energy, talking, putting the opposition under pressure, when you’re contesting balls from the start.”

Her opponent will be South African Karla Pretorius, the stealthiest defender in the game who sits off the body and comes from nowhere to steal the ball. Pretorius was the elimination final’s MVP, with seven intercepts and five deflections to her name. Fever will need to be precise to keep the ball out of her hands. Jacqi Russell said, “Karla has the ability to come out of nowhere and pull off an intercept, right when your team needs it.”

Nat Medhurst (Fever). Photo: Steve McLeod.

Jhaniele Fowler – goal shooter/Geva Mentor – goal keeper
Much of the external talk this year has been about Jhaniele Fowler’s influence on the Fever, but the humble Jamaican is the first to admit that it takes 10 players to win a match. Never the less, she’s a powerful, athletic and accurate presence in the goal circle. Stacey Francis said of her teammate, “It’s an easy, simple way to explain what we’ve achieved this year.”

“If people analyse us, and think it’s all about Jhaniele, they underdo us and they aren’t paying attention and respect to other areas of the court. We’ve changed our game plan a little over the past few weeks to find new ways to push our team performance forward that doesn’t just rely on a tall goal shooter putting in goals. It’s fascinating that players like Romelda (Aiken) and Caitlin (Bassett) are in the league but don’t create the same amount of discussion. But Janielle is such a confident presence, and we all feed off that.”

Usually impassive on court, in recent weeks the Jamaican international has been far more animated. Courtney Bruce explained, “We’ve asked a lot from her the last couple of weeks.”

“I can feel her energy coming down to me in keeper and vice versa…It shows her confidence in herself and also that she has in the team. I love having the little dance with her at the start of the quarters, it’s been really good to see her step up and own the leadership of that attacking end, because I know that when she’s coming, the middies and Nat are firing.”

With almost twenty years of international experience to her name, evergreen Lightning goal keeper Geva Mentor will be a worthy opponent. Mentor is an expert at moving her opponent out of comfortable shooting range, and has the agility to roll off and target any misplaced passes. Their clash will be one of the highlights of mouth-watering match ups happening all over the court.

Mentor’s leadership has been crucial to Lightning’s success, with teammate Jacqui Russell rating her as a very genuine person. “That shines through. She wants what is best for the team, but also for the individual players. Some captains will fire up their team and deliver an inspirational message, but Geva does it with an air of maturity and calmness which is crucial in those tight situations.”

Ingrid Colyer (Fever). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

The bench
Fever

Kaylia Stanton – shooter
For a 189cm player, Kaylia Stanton has the versatility to play at goal shooter or goal attack. When Fowler hobbled off in the semi-final, Stanton held her nerve when injected into the play. Stacey Francis said, “We had confidence in Kaylia, and she had confidence in going to the post. She did a phenomenal job. We know she’s not Jhaniele and so had to work the ball into her, but the beauty of her coming on is that the Giants weren’t expecting to play against someone with the added mobility that she had.”

Shannon Eagland – midcourt/defence
Following a knee reconstruction last year, Shannon Eagland hasn’t been able to reclaim her position in the starting seven. Nat Medhurst said, “Shannon is the most team orientated, selfless player within our group. It’s been a hard road for her following her injury, but she’s shown what a quality player she is when she comes onto court and has a real impact. She would bleed and do anything for the club, Shannon is the ultimate team player.”

Annika Lee-Jones – defence
At 197cm Annika Lee-Jones is the tallest player in the league, and one of the youngest. Nat Medhurst said, “Annie has an incredible work ethic. She’s still young and raw, but her growth from last year to this one has been incredible. She pushes herself to the point of exhaustion, and is our defender’s voice and eyes.”

 

Lightning

Cara Koenen – shooter/midcourt
The 22 year old has had limited court time sitting behind Diamonds’ shooters Caitlin Bassett and Steph Wood. Hailing from Magnetic Island, Koenen has overcome the tyranny of distance to make it this far in netball.

Jacqui Russell – midcourt
After a stint at the Firebirds in 2010/11, Jacqui Russell earned a call up to the Lightning in 2018 following the departure of Laura Langman. While she’s made way for preferred starter Madi McAuliffe in recent games, Russell is a gritty wing defence who can shut a player down.

Erena Mikaere – defence/midcourt
The Lightning is Erena Mikaere’s fourth club, after playing at WBOP Magic, Southern Steel and West Coast Fever. Mainly used as another wing defence option, the 193cm player makes life difficult for her shorter opponents.

 

WHO WILL WIN
West Coast Fever and Sunshine Coast Lightning are very evenly matched teams. With two of the best shooting and defensive circles in the league, and short but blistering midcourts, the result will most likely come down to whichever team can control their nerves and the ball in the early stages of the game. That advantage may go to Lightning, whose finals campaign and comprehensive win last year will give them confidence. However, their long stretch of four games away from home could see them tire late in the game.

Defence: Lightning are more likely to create more gains through stand out defenders Geva Mentor and Karla Pretorius, but Stacey Francis and Courtney Bruce improve with every outing and can never be underrated.

Midcourt: Kelsey Browne has developed into one of the best wing attacks in the league, but having upped their defensive work rate in recent weeks, the Fever midcourt may have the advantage over their direct opponents in this respect.

Shooters: Having built a strong combination, the wise head/young gun Diamonds pairing of Caitlin Bassett and Steph Wood will be hard to stop. However the imposing presence of Jhaniele Fowler and big game experience of Nat Medhurst, who controls much of Fever’s attacking play, could prove a vital point of difference.

Steph Wood (Lightning). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

WHY FEVER CAN WIN
Stacey Francis: “The hunger continues to grow. We not only want success now, but sustainable growth for the future.”

Stacey Marinkovich: “There is absolute belief. You could tell that they knew within themselves as individuals and as a team, that they were good enough to play at that level of netball and they were good enough to play anywhere, anytime. When we got that vibe, we knew we could get the results. It was that inner belief, it had been there in bits and pieces, but it had been challenged. Sometimes you just need that kick over to get that ‘we are the real deal’.”

“We’ve got one more (game) to go…our club is so humble in the way we go about it, and we know how hard it is to get the results, and we know how hard you have to work over a period just to get an opportunity, so it’s preparation. Our team thrives on it. We want to be a better team in two weeks’ time than we were last week, so that’s our main focus.”

Courtney Bruce: “(We have) ten people, everyone working for each other, for the same outcome, no one being bigger than the team.”

 

WHY LIGHTNING CAN WIN
Jacqui Russell: “In games this season we’ve seen a lot of changes in momentum. One team establishing a big lead, the other team coming back hard and the match being tight. We understand that and understand that even if we get a big lead, we haven’t got the game in the bag.”

“It’s going to be really important to weather the storm and the pressure, and make sure that everyone does their job for the whole game so that we’re ready to strike at the end of the game.”

“It’s important to constantly refocus during breaks in the game. We have to make sure we’re all on the same page, so having discussions within units and the team as a whole as to what structures and tactics are working, and what aren’t as successful. We need a plan going into each quarter that everyone understands.”

“No matter what the score is, you have to be prepared to adapt and adjust to what is happening in the game.”

Laura Scherian (Lightning). Photo: Steve McLeod.

 

Photos: Steve McLeod
Cover photo: Marcela Massey

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