The Adelaide Thunderbirds and NSW Swifts were inseparable at the final whistle on Sunday, with the first- and seventh-placed teams finishing with a 51-all draw at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre.

It was an anticlimactic finish, and heartbreaking for Thunderbirds after Maria Folau was unable to score with a chance after the siren.

The Thunderbirds came out of the blocks, taking advantage of some uncharacteristic mistakes from the Swifts, such as a centre pass gone astray and a missed connection from Maddy Turner to Helen Housby. Shamera Sterling took an intercept – one of four collected in the opening term – which prompted Swifts coach Briony Akle to call an early time out.

The break in play settled both sides, who traded goals until Sterling rebounded Sam Wallace’s falling out of court shot. Sterling’s early influence on the match was becoming so influential that Akle injected Sophie Garbin into the match at GS with just under two minutes to go.

The Thunderbirds held up the final play to stop the Swifts from scoring, and took a five-goal lead at quarter time. It was a strong start from the home side, who were reaping the rewards of placing heavy pressure over the Swifts’ centre passes and transverse line.

Chelsea Pitman was instrumental in the Thunderbirds’ attacking end. Photo: Liam Hughes

Sarah Klau rebounded a missed shot by Folau, which the Swifts capitalised upon to bring the scoreline back to three in the early minutes of the second quarter.

Adelaide called a time out to bring Kelly Altmann into centre. In previous rounds, the Thunderbirds have responded poorly after their own time outs – particularly when leading – while the switching between Hannah Petty and Altmann in the centre position has sometimes caused periods of adjustment that the Thunderbirds cannot afford in tight games.

When a poor pass from Layla Guscoth was picked off, it seemed like the pattern would continue, but Adelaide regrouped. Sterling grabbed another rebound and intercept, allowing Folau to score and extend the margin to six.

However, a missed bounce pass rolled out of court, and Garbin scored to close the margin again. The quarter score was tied, and a bonus point went begging for either side.

Given the second quarter has been Adelaide’s weakness throughout this season, it was encouraging to see them withstand the Swifts’ pressure and hold their lead. Sterling had a remarkable 7 intercepts at the break, and seemed destined to break the record which Emily Mannix (Vixens) had set one day earlier. But with a quarter against Sterling under her belt, Garbin was starting to come into the match and draw her attention, and her influence was showing on the Swifts’ scoreline.

Sophie Garbin and Shamera Sterling’s match up became one of the crucial contests. Photo: Liam Hughes

Both Sasha Glasgow and Garbin rebounded misses from their goaling counterparts to keep the scoreline hovering around a six-goal margin in the early minutes of the third quarter. The Swifts were still struggling on the attacking approach, almost always reverting to the transverse line, which prompted Akle to switch up the midcourt.

Kate Eddy returned to the court, Sophie Halpin shifted into Centre, while Paige Hadley took the Wing Attack bib.

The Swifts responded immediately, turning over Adelaide’s possession, causing the Thunderbirds to call their own time out and swap Folau and Glasgow’s bibs.

The Thunderbirds extended their lead after the Swifts’ centre pass was thrown straight to Altmann, but in a crucial moment, Altmann returned the favour by throwing away Adelaide’s own centre pass. It cost Adelaide in both goals and momentum. A held ball call against Pitman in the final seconds proved costly, and suddenly the Swifts were down by just two at the final break.

There was a sense of déjà vu for both teams. In the previous round, the Thunderbirds had let their early lead slip against the Fever, while the Swifts had played majority of the match in chase mode against the Giants before overrunning them in the final term. Was history about to repeat?

Helen Housby lines up for goal. Photo: Liam Hughes

Both teams started the fourth quarter with nervous mistakes such as missed goals and throwaway passes, until a rebound by Turner allowed Housby to equal the scores. Adelaide brought Charlee Hodges into the game, but her few minutes on court were marred by bad hands and a held ball call, which gave the Swifts a four-goal lead.

Adelaide reintroduced Glasgow to return to their original goal circle combination, but the shuffle had been costly. With five minutes to go, the home crowd was willing their defenders to win back the ball. Sterling, who had a quiet second half as she focused on quelling Garbin, obliged with a deflection that bounced off the post into Guscoth’s arms, resulting in a Folau goal.

A great drive and finish by Housby scored the Swifts’ 51st and final goal with two minutes remaining. Glasgow scored, and Sterling rebounded Housby’s next attempt.

With their centre pass to follow, the Thunderbirds needed two goals in one minute. Folau scored, and on their next centre pass, she played the ball around to eat up the final seconds until being given a penalty scoring attempt. The siren went, but Folau missed, leaving the scores tied.

Sarah Klau puts the pressure over Maria Folau’s shot. Photo: Liam Hughes

No team or crowd enjoys a draw, and this match was no exception.

The Thunderbirds will be especially disappointed, having been so close to beating the top side. On a positive note, this match signalled their improvement since the early rounds, where the Swifts trounced them by eighteen goals. After the break, they face a daunting task against the Vixens in Melbourne, where they will want to back up their most consistent four quarter effort so far this season.

Both sides will feel the disruption of the Netball World Cup, losing five players each to the Liverpool tournament. Like the other six teams, it is impossible to predict the impact of the break. Considering how the Swifts have put themselves in the box seat for the finals series, they will be unhappy that they were unable to put the Thunderbirds away. However, they have earned the margin for error with their sparkling form in the first half of the season. Sitting atop of the ladder with bonus points to spare, the Swifts are well placed for the final five rounds, starting with a match against the West Coast Fever in Perth.

Layla Guscoth takes to the air. Photo: Liam Hughes

Adelaide Thunderbirds 51 draw NSW Swifts 51
(14-9, 15-15, 12-15, 10-12)

Player of the Match: Sophie Garbin (Swifts)

Adelaide Thunderbirds
Maria Folau 26/36 72%
Sasha Glasgow 23/25 92%
Charlee Hodges 2/2 100%
51/63 81%

NSW Swifts
Sophie Garbin 25/29 86%
Helen Housby 21/26
Sam Wallace 5/7 71%
51/62 82%

Key Stats

Intercepts
Shamera Sterling (Thunderbirds) 7
Kate Eddy (Swifts) 2

Rebounds
Shamera Sterling (Thunderbirds) 4
Sasha Glasgow (Thunderbirds) 4
Helen Housby (Swifts) 3
Maddy Turner (Swifts) 3

Gains
Shamera Sterling (Thunderbirds) 12
Maddy Turner (Swifts) 4
Sarah Klau (Swifts) 4

Pick Ups
Paige Hadley (Swifts) 5
Layla Guscoth (Thunderbirds) 3

Starting Line Ups
Adelaide Thunderbirds
GS Sasha Glasgow
GA Maria Folau
WA Chelsea Pitman
C Hannah Petty
WD Shadine van der Merwe
GD Layla Guscoth
GK Shamera Sterling
Changes: Q2 C Kelly Altmann
Q3 GS Maria Folau, GA Sasha Glasgow
Q4 GA Charlee Hodges, GS Sasha Glasgow, GA Maria Folau

NSW Swifts
GS Sam Wallace
GA Helen Housby
WA Elle Bennetts
C Paige Hadley
WD Kate Eddy
GD Maddy Turner
GK Sarah Klau
Changes: Q1 GS Sophie Garbin
Q3 WD Sophie Halpin, WA Paige Hadley C Sophie Halpin WD Kate Eddy

What They Said

Tania Obst – Adelaide Thunderbirds Coach

On the Thunderbirds’ consistency
“We’re gradually putting together a near sixty-minute game. It’s still not there, but it probably is, overall, our best sixty minutes.”

On the feeling after a draw
“It’s a bit like nothing, isn’t it? I need to really look at the positives. I just think we’ve just drawn, and probably had enough of the ball to beat, the top of the ladder so … the draw is a bit awkward, it’s a bit funny, we come away with only the two points plus our bonus points, so … I don’t know what to feel.”

On Chelsea Pitman’s game
“I thought that we got a little bit stagnant at times in our attacking half. Chelsea’s certainly been playing well the last three weeks, she’s been pretty much controlling that forward line and again we saw that today, and we just need to – all of us – put out there that sixty-minute performance.”

On Charlee Hodges
“I thought she did really well. I’m probably kicking myself; there was one instruction that I probably should have given her a little bit earlier, but she did really well … she’s fearless, she’ll have a crack, and she put the ball through a couple times and took some heat off of Sasha just to give her a little bit of a rest and I was happy with the way she injected into the game.”

On Maria Folau’s approach to the game after the week’s controversy
“She is the ultimate professional. She presents at training a no-fuss attitude, she’s there to get the best out of herself and her teammates and our team and she is the consummate professional … because I’ve seen how she presents at training, at other games, and how she presented pre-game, I knew that she was ready to play.”