In this extraordinary Suncorp Super Netball season, as Sunshine Coast Lightning and West Coast Fever duel for the right to meet the Melbourne Vixens in next Sunday’s grand final, Simone McKinnis’ team is experiencing something unique.
A weekend off.
It comes after a frenetic stretch of 14 rounds in just 57 days since the first - in quarantine - on August 2, then an emphatic Major Semi-Final 63-47 defeat of the Lightning that qualified the minor premiers for the big dance for the first time since winning the 2014 ANZ Championship.
Now, a week without an official game. Phew. Time to rest, repair and prepare, physically. Other benefits, too.
“There’s a mental and emotional break. Time to breathe. Because it was so go, go, go,’’ says McKinnis, in her eighth year as Head Coach. “And we can give the time to people with little niggles and things like that."
“But we also need to get the right balance of intensity and match work because you want to be hitting the Grand Final at your best. So it’s a challenging one, but we think that we’ll work it pretty well.’’
A solid training session on Wednesday preceded full match play at Nissan Arena on Friday. The only fitness doubt is over Kate Eddy, who missed the Semi with a foot problem, although Liz Watson completed her first full game after an ankle injury and the champion wing attack will also appreciate what is being treated as a bye with a twist.
“It’s probably the first time we’ve had so much time (between games), and when you’re at home that’s okay, because you have your normal life, so it’s a little bit different up here,’’ McKinnis says.
“But all good. We have our training plan, and we’ll have the weekend off, which is an opportunity to have a little bit of a break before what will be a big week. Then back on court on Monday.’’
While failing to reach the summit, the Vixens have missed the finals just once in the five seasons since the 2014 flag. Back then, Watson and Jo Weston were first-year players, joining Philip and Kate Moloney as teammates then and still now.
This time, the coach nominates belief as the key ingredient, with consistency also critical in building confidence. Whether winning a close game, grinding out a not-so-pretty slog or overcoming a deficit of 14 to pinch a draw with the Fever, each situation has contributed to the development of a famously well-drilled team.
Statistically, the Vixens’ ability to capitalise on turnover ball and score from gains has been a standout, while the fact they have conceded fewer goals than any other team is enough to warm the heart of McKinnis, a celebrated member of the defenders’ club.
“I do love that!’’ she admits. “We spoke at the start of the year that our ability to defend across the court was going to be a strength of ours; that defensive pressure sets the tone for us in a lot of ways and I think it’s grown across the season.
“Everybody’s doing the work off the ball to create options. and backing themselves to have a go at the ball, so it’s been fun to watch. Then just that ability to maintain possession and score off the ball - that composure and decision-making on court is much improved.’’
While no-one is admitting to a preference for a Grand Final opponent - despite a 3-0 record against the Lightning in 2020 - McKinnis says there was not so much a feeling of relief last Saturday after winning just the club’s second final in four SSN seasons, as one of excitement. (Or to quote a post-match Emily Mannix: "I can't believe that we bloody got here!")
The next will also be the last for a much-loved pair of retirees: Vixens 'games and goals record-holder Tegan Philip, and foundation Vixen, Caitlin Thwaites, the latter after a late-career return to where it all began.
“I think it was really good for them to make that announcement before the finals started, because there was a lot of emotion around it, and I just think they’re in a really good head space, they’re comfortable with their decision,’’ McKinnis said.
“Now they just want to play great netball and we want to play great netball beside them. It has to be about what we’re doing out there on court. We have to play the game and that composure and control and intensity is super-important.’’
If no previous minor premier has won the SSN title in three attempts, then the number of ways in which this has been a season like no other is almost infinite. Preparing in iso and via Zoom. Uncertainty over if, when and where it would all start. Three months of hub life, away from family and friends. A demanding, condensed fixture. Little time to adjust to late rule changes, including the Suncorp Super Shot.
As far as free weekends go, this one has been both deserved and hard-earned.
“I’m excited for the group because I think they’ve been outstanding this year in terms of everything they’ve had to deal with and how they’ve handled it every step of the way,’’ says McKinnis.
“I’m just super-excited to see them out there on court playing in a Grand Final and I would love nothing more for them than to have that success at the end.
“I’d be super proud. Super proud.’’
Written by Linda Pearce