The NSW Swifts hung on in one last tough encounter before the Suncorp Super Netball Finals Series begins next week. The Queensland Firebirds, with nothing left to play for but pride (and possibly a few outstanding contracts) brought all of their arsenal to a packed Qudos Bank Arena, where the home crowd showed the visitors no love.

Swifts coach Briony Akle played with her defensive line-up to start the match in what was possibly a tactical move to test combinations. While the Firebirds may have trained all week assuming that Sarah Klau was going to start at goal keeper, Akle decided to shake things up and have Klau start at goal defence. Silver Fern and late addition to the Swifts line-up, Katrina Rore started at goal attack and Maddy Turner started at wing defence.

Helen Housby was a welcome addition to the Swifts front line after being sidelined for the last two weeks with a thigh injury and Klau was celebrating her 50th game in the red dress. It would also be the last game for retiring Firebirds Caitlyn Nevins and Laura Clemesha. Both players have been wonderful advocates of the sport for many years and have much to be proud of in their careers. While they will disappointed with the Firebirds season as a whole, they have enjoyed success with this team, who were dominant in the final years of the ANZ competition.

Caitlyn Nevins (Firebirds) in her last national league game. Image: May Bailey.

The Swifts jumped out to an early lead of three goals and looked to have the quarter under control but Tara Hinchliffe, goal keeper for the Firebirds kept them in contention with and intercept and a deflection; and despite the pressure being applied by the Swifts, the Firebirds clawed their way back to level the scores with eight minutes to go.

It was obvious from the start that both Kim Jenner and Hinchliffe had been told to come off the body and avoid the umpires whistle. They were doing a good job of staying in play and were giving themselves opportunity to contest for ball. Jenner in particular had been criticised in recent weeks for her physicality and the amount of penalties next to her name; but in the first quarter, it was Klau who had amounted the most penalties on court with eight.

Housby came on strong in her first game back and she was accurate under the post. Her movement in attack was good and her strong drives opened up the Swifts attack end. Housby didn’t miss in the first quarter which would have calmed any nerves she may have had after a few weeks off.

Gretel Tippett (Firebirds) takes the ball in the air. Image: May Bailey

Her opposition goal attack, Tippett, was also having a fine quarter and was involved in everything the Firebirds were creating. Tippett also didn’t miss a shot in the first 15, and as always was crucial to the Firebirds attack end.

The way teams come back on court after a time-out, has been a talking point this season, and when Akle called a time out with the Swifts up by one, it proved good timing with on-court captain Paige Hadley picking up a turnover that swung momentum and saw the Swifts go on a three-goal spree. By the end of the first quarter the Swifts looked in control and they took a four-goal lead into the break.

The second quarter was vastly different from the first. The Swifts dropped their intensity and the Firebirds felt the shift and made the most of it. They quickly scored three unanswered goals and the momentum of the game was now with the Firebirds.

Jenner and Hinchliffe were a formidable combination in the defensive circle and were disrupting the smooth flow of play the Swifts had enjoyed in the first quarter. Captain Gabi Simpson in wing defence was applying pressure to English Rose Natalie Haythornwaite who had a couple of turnovers to her name.  Simpson’s combination with her circle defenders was working a treat. Simpson and Jenner both took an intercept and Jenner was getting her hand to ball creating turnovers that the Firebirds were able to score off.

Katrina Rore (Swifts) and Romelda Aiken (Firebirds) fight for possession. Image: May Bailey.

The Firebirds had worked hard and within the first four minutes of the quarter they had levelled the score and had lifted their intensity. In contrast the Swifts had tightened up in attack and were looking hesitant on their passes. There were some lovely moments in defence by the Klau, Rore and Turner combination that kept the Swifts in touch, but the penalties were mounting against Klau and Rore and they were out of play too often.

It was a huge quarter from the visitors as they displayed some of their best netball for the season to take the quarter 19-12. The Firebirds had surged forward with momentum and went into the break with a three-goal lead at half time.

At the start of the third quarter Sophie Garbin came on to replace Housby. Garbin has a totally different style of play to Housby, and matched up very well physically against Jenner. The strength of Garbin is that she is able to play the role of another feeder to Sam Wallace, she can hold amazing space with good body positioning and can set up wonderful screens for her feeders. She is also a mid-range shooter, so she commands the attention of the defense.

The Swifts had a lot of work to do in the third quarter and at one stage they were down by six goals, which had a usually calm Akle up and out of her chair.

Jemma MiMi (Firebirds) and Paige Hadley (Swifts) were well matched. Image: May Bailey

It was a hard battle that the Swifts needed to have as they come into the finals, and they showed a lot of courage to dig themselves out of trouble and get themselves back within one with a few minutes on the clock. The Swifts had gone back to playing the safe netball that has seen them at the top of the ladder for so long. They cut their errors out completely and were working hard on the simple things. Rore and Klau were working very well together, were causing just enough trouble for the Firebirds that Tippett and Aiken both made errors and the Swifts were able to capitalise. Turnovers created by the intensity the Swifts were playing with was hurting the Firebirds and when Klau managed a huge rebound over Aiken that the Swifts converted, the scores were locked at 39 all.

Garbin had come on extremely well, showing her coach that she isn’t simply there to make up the numbers. She finished on 10 goal assists and shot at 100%. The Sydney crowd sensed the occasion and acted as the eighth team member as they got their team over the line in the third quarter.

The Swifts won the quarter 19-15 and it set up a nail-biting finish with the score at 49-48 going into the final quarter.

The Firebirds had not made any changes so far in the match and coach Roselee Jencke decided to stay true to her starting seven to bring the game home. If the Swifts make the grand final in a few weeks time they will look back at this match and want to send a thank you card to the Firebirds. It was the contest they needed to have and a huge test for them as to what they can deliver in pressure situations.

Akle left Garbin on at the start of the fourth quarter and it was a good move, if not only to rest Housby, Garbin had the ball on a string. Her seamless connection with Wallace in the circle was lovely to watch.

In the Firebirds attack end, Aiken and Tippett were putting on a show of their own, they had nothing to lose and were playing with flair and confidence; they were keen to send Nevins and Clemesha out on a win.

Against Hadley, young Firebird Jemma Mi Mi was having a great game. Mimi needed to step up or face the possibility of being exposed and letting Hadley control the game. However, in one of the better games she has had this year, Mi Mi was able to go toe to toe with Hadley and had the edge on her for much of the game.

Wallace was standing tall despite some unwanted attention from Hinchlilffe and the usually calm and collected shooter was giving as good as she was getting. Hinchliffle was unable to rattle Wallace and in fact did the opposite as Wallace stood and delivered at 100% accuracy in the fourth and pulled in an  important offensive rebound.

With less than ten minutes remaining, Akle once again tinkered with her line up, giving more of her bench the opportunity of a run on court before the finals. Despite Garbin’s strong minutes, she made way for Housby to return and Turner went to the bench for Sophie Halpin, who has been used as a good impact player all season. The strength of the Swifts despite their injuries, has been the way Akle has produced and managed players who can come on and get the job done.

Paige Hadley and Nat Haythornthwaite (Swifts) in the midcourt. Image: May Bailey.

When Nevins was called for replay with three minutes remaining, the Swifts got the turnover they desperately needed and the huge crowd nearly blew the lid off the stadium. Knowing they needed to convert the turnover, it was a nervous transition down court, but the ball in hands of Housby was converted and the Swifts then had the centre pass and were looking to push the score line out to two goals. Tippett had other ideas and just when the Swifts thought they had the game she came up with a phenomenal offensive intercept off the Swifts centre and a long bomb into Aiken saw the scores locked up again.

It was incredibly tense in the stadium with both coaches out of their seats, and the noise of the Swifts crowd were willing their team home. In the end it was an offside call on Firebirds captain Gabi Simpson that gave the Swifts the final turnover of the game, and under immense pressure the Swifts were able to hold on to get the win.

Though they are already playing finals netball, the Swifts could not have asked for a better preparation game. It now remains to be seen if they can shake off the mental stigma of knowing that the Lightning have beaten them twice this season. Ex Aussie Diamond and commentator, Cath Cox said that if the Swifts could get the win over the Firebirds under those conditions, she backed them to win the grand final.

The outcome is solely in the hands of this playing group now. They are a team who have come a long way this season, they were not listed as top four contenders at the start of the year and they have had some massive injury blows, but have dug deep and they now find themselves in the finals for the first time since 2016. The next few weeks of Suncorp Super Netball is going to be a great test of character for the Swifts, and we will see what they are made of.

FINAL SCORE: NSW SWIFTS DEFEATED QUEENSLAND FIREBIRDS 64-63

Starting Teams:

SWIFTS | GS Sam Wallace, GA Helen Housby, WA Natalie Haythornthwaite, C Paige Hadley, WD Maddy Turner, GD Sarah Klau, GK Katrina Rore

FIREBIRDS | GS Romelda Aiken, GA Gretel Tippett, WA Caitlyn Nevins, C Jemma Mi Mi, WD Gabi Simpson, GD Kimberley Jenner, GK Tara Hinchcliffe

Shooting Stats:

Sam Wallace: 43/45 96%
Helen Housby: 16/18 90%
Sophie Garbin: 5/5 100%

NSW Swifts 54/68 94%

FIREBIRDS: 63/70 90%
Romelda Aiken: 30/35 86%
Gretel Tippett: 33/35 94%

Queensland Firebirds 63/70 90%

MVP: Gretel Tippett

After the Game:

Briony Akle – NSW Swifts coach

“The last four rounds have been very up and down for us. To come away with a win, it is a good win for us in terms of preparation for next week and what finals pressure looks like. I played the majority of the bench so they all got a bit of game time. It sets us up well for next week.”

“To the Firebirds credit, they were good. Romelda [Aiken] and Gretel [Tippett], that is the most outstanding I have seen them play all year”.

“Full credit to Sophie Garbin, she came on and she was outstanding. She was calm and she was cool and I thought she fed the ball beautifully to Sammy [Wallace]. She is one of my players’ players today. I thought she did an outstanding job”.

Against the Lightning next week Akle is hoping for third time lucky.

“We are hoping for third time lucky! We have set ourselves up twice against them and I think the girls are super excited to play them. They are one team they do love playing and having a battle against. They are rearing to go.”

On court Swifts Captain and centre Paige Hadley

“We know that the Sunshine Coast [Lightning] is going to come down to the wire… you have to stick to your structure and believe that your process will come out on top and while we threw a few silly balls away today, I think we can really go in against Sunshine Coast looking good.”

Helen Housby, NSW Swifts

On being back after a break with a thigh injury.

“I am feeling good. It is never nice to be on the sideline, so it is nice to be able to put the dress back on and represent with the girls and get going again”.

“I am really proud heading into the finals with a win. Firebirds are a really quality side. Where they sit on the ladder does not reflect the sort of team they are. They have weapons up at front and a solid defense end, they had nothing to lose today and they played amazing.”

What do the Swifts need to do to get a win over the Sunshine Coast Lightning?

“Both of the games [we lost] we only lost by two [goals] and in both of those I think we were in control in the third and fourth quarter and we let it slip. We know they are really good at closing out a game, so we will need to look at where we are losing the ball and why we are not as clinical as we were in the first half. I am just excited to be back in the finals”.

“If we can win next week it would be amazing to have the home grand final…I am not bothered who we play, I am just excited about it.”

Caitlyn Nevins, Queensland Firebirds

“I thought I had my emotions in check until I saw Jemma (Mi Mi) cry. I think as a player what you try to do is shelter some of those emotions because there is always room for improvement, but now that it is the end I can reflect and feel the excitement and look back over some of those highs and really celebrate those times.”

“I play for the people. I love the comradery, but I love the challenges, pushing each other to get better and in my new life I am going to have to find those little challenges…I do not know what it is going to look like but I still need to have that I think, because that is what I have really enjoyed on this ride.”

“My role on the court is not to be flashy. If my goalers are doing a good job, I am doing a good job. I am so lucky that I was able to represent Australia, even if it was for five caps, it was phenomenal and an experience that I will never forget. It is all about the right time and opportunities, but I kept putting my hand up and don’t back away from a challenge”.