Trivia question of the week: in what position did Caitlin Thwaites, then a 15-year-old Bendigo schoolgirl, make her 2002 national league debut for the Melbourne Kestrels?
Answer: goal attack.
[Bonus points for guessing the identity of her opponent - Sydney Swift, Alison Broadbent. Easier, perhaps, to nominate the GK that day: Liz Ellis.]
More than 18 years later, with Ellis in the commentary box, the remarkably durable Thwaites is not just still here, but also back to where it all began.
A senior career that has included World Cup and Commonwealth Games gold and the 2009 Vixens' Premiership has been spent almost exclusively at goal shooter.
In 2020, the 33-year-old has started Suncorp Super Netball's fourth season switching between both spots.
“I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times and I’m really grateful to be having a different challenge and able to keep learning and growing my game,’’ says Thwaites, who is sharing a Brisbane apartment and regular how-to-play-GA sessions with fellow veteran, Tegan Philip.
“I’m obviously still learning so much about that position, where you need to be on the court, and where you find yourself, and sometimes I’m going, ‘oh shit, I needed to be over that side of the court when that happened!’
“But the ability to be able to read the game, that’s what I’m relying on, and just those smarts and things. Sometimes I’m not in the right position, but to work your way out of it and think through it, I’m relying on that experience that I’ve had.
“I’m also super-grateful to have the likes of ‘Tegs’, who’s teaching me so much, and we’ve got Sharelle (McMahon, Vixens Assistant Coach) back home, who’s also providing feedback and helping with scouting our next opponents.
"Who better to learn from than those guys? It’s been awesome.’’
The first hint of this altered role came in 2019, via a cameo quarter or two in the GA bib, and has been ramped up by the return of Mwai Kumwenda from an ACL tear. Thwaites has played out the front of both ‘MJ’ and 'Tegs' at times, as well as back at shooter when the fleet-footed Philip fills her more accustomed role. Even in reverse.
So, come on. Truly? Can the 188cm Thwaites honestly say she is enjoying the position itself, given how much more running is involved?
Particularly given she is in her career twilight? And especially during a never-before-seen condensed season of two games each week, sometimes played just two days apart?
“I am! And the pressure’s off a little bit when I’m out at goal attack, because nobody expects me to be doing too well out there,’’ she laughs.
“I know I’ve just got to keep my work-rate really high and be running my guts out as hard and for as long as I need to. The huge strength of our shooting end at the moment is that we’ve got so many different combinations and options and Simone hasn’t been afraid to change them throughout the games.
“I think it’s amazing that we can have that versatility and keep the opposition guessing because each of the combinations offers something different, but then we can also play them in different ways, strategically, as well.
“As a shooting end we’re excited to keep that going, and each game each of us might play a very different role, and we’re completely fine with that because we know that it’s working well for the team at the moment.’’
Winning helps, no doubt, and the Vixens are on top of the ladder heading into Tuesday's Round 11 game against the NSW Swifts.
Personally, Thwaites has resolved not to try to compare current performances with past efforts that involved week after week in the same position. The Suncorp Super Shot and so many other elements mean this season is like none we have seen before.
Indeed, Thwaites was given ample warning of her altered role for a 2020 that has been unexpected in almost every other way.
Given that squad sizes were originally limited to 10, and considering the individual characteristics of the three Vixens’ shooters, the idea was to have one of the trio play predominantly at shooter, one at goal attack, and one to swing between both.
“It was very clear from the get-go that I was going to need to learn goal attack,’’ says Thwaites, who played each of her 55 Tests for the Diamonds at GS.
“I thought it was going to be more of a back-up, but (that changed with) the introduction of the rolling subs and the rule changes and things like that.
“I definitely offer something very different to what Tegan does; my timing is different, and just the fact that I’ve got a bit more size I can stand and turn and deliver the really deep second-phase balls because I can see over the hands; or I’m a bit of a bigger target in those areas.
“So I’ve had to identify those benefits of me being in that position and really try to play to those, as opposed to pretending to be as speedy as Tegan, because that’s just not going to happen!’’
The long, long pre-season, including remote iso-training, provided ample time to bolster Thwaites’ fitness levels and ability to play more minutes, while the uncertainty over a start date meant that more time than usual was spent on either conditioning or power work.
When court work and match play resumed, she spent more time at goal attack than previously, although Thwaites reveals that during annual goal-setting sessions with coaches for the past six or seven years she has been open to the possibility of branching out.
For one thing, it helps with her GS game. Being able to see things from the GA's perspective and "go ‘oh, so that’s why you don’t want me to do that? 'Cause, as a goal attack, that’s annoying isn’t it!’''
If so, one particular goal attack - Philip - has been a strong and selfless ally, as well as a buddy in the kitchen and a companion during hub life. Roommates since the first day of quarantine in Brisbane on July 19, the pair shares a strong understanding on the court and an easy rapport off it.
“Somebody said 'the connection between Tegan and Caitlin has been so amazing’, and I felt like going ‘well, we’ve been living in each other’s pockets for the last however-long, so you’d want to hope so!' We’re literally moving in sync,’’ laughs Thwaites.
“Years ago maybe players would have been a bit threatened by other players, but Tegs has been so forthcoming and I’m really grateful to be able to learn so much from her and bounce ideas off her.
"It’s such a team-first mentality and about how we can make each other better, which is so awesome. I'm really enjoying it.’’
Written by Linda Pearce
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