Just over two weeks ago, when Super Netball bosses announced a hastily-rejigged fixture for the final three home and away rounds, seven out of eight sides were, mathematically at least, in the running for finals.
Whether it was by strategic design or serendipity, the last two fixtures of the regular season, played without crowds in a Queensland hub at the weekend, featured the top four sides set to fight for the premiership. It was netball’s version of a dress rehearsal.
The results, which saw the Swifts overcome a fast-finishing Sunshine Coast Lightning and a depleted Giants line-up upset flag favourite West Coast Fever, said much about the upcoming finals series, but also, somehow nothing at all.
Injuries to key players, out-of-the-box performances and the fact that all-but one of the finalists have beaten the other three this year, means the closing scene of season 2021 is far from written.
Winning secured the Giants and Swifts first and second spots respectively and importantly, each a double chance. Saturday’s major semi will be an NSW derby between the two, with the winner advancing to the 28 August grand final. The loser will face the winner of Saturday’s Fever versus Lightning minor semi in the preliminary on 21 August.
At the weekend the Swifts – particularly shooter Sam Wallace, who finished with 50/52, and centre Maddy Proud with 42 feeds – were impressive after a shock recent lost to Collingwood, but the Lightning were without star Steph Wood, who missed with an ankle injury. And it showed.
Kylee Byrne’s side struggled without Wood’s ingenuity and organisation at goal attack. Byrne tried a series of different shooting combinations featuring Cara Koenen, Peace Proscovia and Binnian Hunt in unsuccessfully attempting to fill the void.
Goal keeper Phumza Maweni left the court in the second and didn’t return, another considerable loss. It is unclear if the South African is still dealing with a foot injury she picked up in July.
The absence or presence – and full fitness or otherwise – of Wood and Maweni are make-or-break for the Lightning against the Fever. With them both playing 60 minutes, Sunshine Coast beat West Coast by four goals in July, after earlier falling to them by 15.
Equally, Swifts coach Briony Akle will be hoping there isn’t any residual effect of a bump to defender Maddy Turner on Saturday. Turner was clearly disoriented after a glancing clash with shooter Hunt sent her spinning around and to the ground. She staggered as she stood, was seemingly unable to articulate to the umpire why she needed to leave the court, and didn’t return.
Under league protocols, a concussion could rule the Swifts’ starting goal defence out of the sudden-death semi. The Swifts will also have everything crossed Paige Hadley was simply rested.
Covid rules restrict teams from topping-up their match-day squads of 10, so any injury could be season-defining.
Another side with injury woes is Julie Fitzgerald’s Giants, who beat the Fever with only eight fit players after defenders April Brandley and Matilda McDonell were ruled out with ankle complaints. The Giants had their backs against the wall and played like it.
Led by captain Jo Harten, the side claimed the minor premiership from the Swifts on percentage, despite both sides having lost two more games than the Fever and finishing with lower percentage. The West Australians didn’t finish top as they started the season 12 points behind as part of a penalty for salary cap breaches.
Against the Fever, the Giants played very clean, picking up just 47 total penalties, the second-least for them for a game all season. Wing defence Amy Parmenter, on Sunday named in a Diamonds squad for the first time, also played a blinder on Verity Charles, the main feeder to Fever’s Jamaican superstar Jhaniele Fowler.
Parmenter hassled and hectored all game, finishing with a round-high six deflections and two gains. She also had one of only seven intercepts. Parmenter forced the usually flawless Charles into four contacts, a general play turnover and a “bad hands” stat.
Can she replicate that eye-popping performance – and her side its calmness and focus – against the Swifts, who the Giants have beaten, but also lost to? And if they lose, can they potentially topple the Lightning, who they haven’t beaten all year, in a prelim?
There are other questions around Stacey Marinkovich’s Fever, who many believe will win the title given the bankable bookends of Fowler and Courtney Bruce. But how does a side accustomed to winning react to just a third loss since May? Were the many positional moves in the second half at the weekend a sign of slight panic or strategy?
Is there nervousness that sides have worked out how to shut down Charles, their main avenue to Fowler? And having lost last year’s decider after going the long way, the Fever both know how it works, but also how much the week off means. Their story, like that of the other three finalists, remains unwritten.