Geva Mentor and Caitlin Bassett as a set of invincible bookends. Sharni Layton prowling the transverse line, bellowing praise at Caitlin Thwaites. Nat Medhurst effortlessly lifting the ball into Jhaniele Fowler. Take everything you know about Super Netball and forget it, because 2019 is a whole new ball game.
The third installment of the world’s premier netball league – which begins on Saturday with a double-header in Melbourne – will look distinctly different to previous seasons, thanks to significant player movement, some big-name retirements, and a World Cup-enforced split format.
In a situation almost unprecedented in world sport, every Super Netball athlete came off contract the day after last year’s grand final, sparking a frenzied trade period. When the dust settled, some of the league’s biggest surnames were on different dresses, most notably Diamonds captain Bassett. The 193cm shooting machine jumped from back-to-back premiers the Sunshine Coast Lightning to the Giants.
Fellow Diamonds shooter, 32-year-old Thwaites, moved from Collingwood to the Vixens and Medhurst, dumped by runner-up West Coast Fever, was nabbed by the Pies. Collingwood also poached Lightning stars Mentor and Kelsey Browne – who had more center pass receives than any other player last season – with the English keeper replacing a retired Layton.
Silver Fern shooting star Maria Folau will play for an Australian franchise; the Adelaide Thunderbirds; for the first time, after getting the green light to play here and still represent New Zealand. Her compatriot Laura Langman is back at her old club, the Lightning, and looking fitter than ever.
Most of the eight clubs have retained the bulk of their playing groups, mainly in the midcourt, but it is marquee players like Bassett and Mentor who’ll have the biggest say in how the 2019 season – to be split in two to accommodate the World Cup in Liverpool in July – will play out.
After not winning a game in 2018, the axe swung in Adelaide. The Thunderbirds have a new coach, former Giants assistant Tania Obst, and four international signings; Folau, who has the capacity to lift any list, emerging Jamaican keeper Shamera Sterling and English defenders Layla Guscoth and Beth Cobden.
South Australians, shooters Sasha Glasgow and Cody Lange, midcourters Kelly Altmann and Hannah Petty and defender Kate Shimmin round out the side, along with wing attack Chelsea Pitman. Some pundits think even Folau and a bunch of Roses can’t help the struggling side, but Giants captain Kim Green disagrees. “If any coach is going to be able to turn it around, Tania is.”Advertisement
While the Greater Western Sydney-backed Giants landed a big fish in Bassett – who replaces a retired Susan Pettitt and will partner with England’s Jo Harten – they also lost midcourter Serena Guthrie and defender Bec Bulley. Captain Green, freshly-minted Diamond Jamie-Lee Price and elevated training partner Amy Parmenter look capable of covering the middle, but the relatively inexperienced defence duo of Sam Poolman and Kristiana Manu’a might be an Achilles heel for Julie Fitzgerald’s side.
Lightning captain Langman, who’ll play her 200th national league this year, is backing the Giants to be there at the end. “I love how they play. I think without a doubt; they will be in there.”
For two seasons, Collingwood’s had an air of “galácticos” – boasting a roster of world-class stars akin to football’s Real Madrid in the early 2000s – but has spectacularly failed to deliver. That appears destined to change under new coach Rob Wright.
The addition of Mentor, Browne and Medhurst, all proven match winners, more than covers the loss of Thwaites, Alice Teague-Neeld to the Fever and the retirements of Layton and Erin Bell. Medhurst, 35, will shoot with ex-Thunderbird, 195cm 20-year-old Jamaican Shimona Nelson, who was last year criticised for poor hands, but looked the goods in pre-season matches.
Throw ex- and current Diamonds Ashleigh Brazill, Kim Ravaillion and April Brandley in the mix and the team everyone loves to hate once again look borderline unbeatable. However, co-captain Madison Browne will miss at least the opening round due to a knee injury sustained during pre-season.
The Vixens are more Diamond-encrusted than a Kardashian – with up to five of their starting seven; Thwaites, defenders Jo Weston and Emily Mannix and midcourters Liz Watson and Kate Moloney – likely to join Australia’s World Cup campaign.
Simone McKinnis’ squad, which just missed finals last year, also boasts likely South African, Jamaican and Malawian representatives Ine-Mari Venter, Kadie-Ann Dehaney and Mwai Kumwenda, if she gets back from a knee reconstruction. This embarrassment of riches is a double-edged sword; making the Vixens one of the favourites for the title, but also susceptible to what happens at and after the Cup when it comes to injury, fatigue and focus.