Sport in the time of COVID was discussed in a recent Zoom conversation between the Melbourne Vixens and their No.1 Ticket Holder, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. The Essendon star is based in an AFL biosecurity bubble, at the same time the Vixens’ serve their two weeks of quarantine in a Queensland hub not so far away.
One topic, with so many so far from home, was player welfare. Another; playing without crowds. The Bombers have been there; as part of this weekend’s long-awaited start to the Suncorp Super Netball season, the Brisbane-based Vixens are about to do that.
An empty Nissan Arena is the unlikely host of Sunday’s latest installment of 'The Battle' - the Victorian derby against the Magpies. The most recent of the teams’ seven meetings was in the 2019 minor Semi-Final, won 62-49 by the Vixens to extend their head-to-head advantage to 5-2, achieved before a vocal crowd squeezed into the State Netball Hockey Centre.
That was more than 10 months ago. This time, there will be empty stands for the last of the rejigged Round 1 fixtures, involving two teams still in quarantine. As McDonald-Tipungwuti emphasised, the sounds amid so much silence will be greatly amplified.
New Co-Captain Liz Watson, promoted to share the role with the famously vocal Kate Moloney, said the Vixens were aware they would need to generate their own energy.
“So a little bit weird, but we’ve got Kate to add voice, so I think she’ll make up for all of our fans who won’t be there!’’
Moloney, too, welcomes the chance to play their Victorian rivals in Round 1.
“Usually we get to run out onto Melbourne Arena with a massive home crowd, and we definitely will miss that, but (it’s great) knowing we’ll have their support from home, and they can all switch on their TVs and hopefully watch us,’’ she says.
“We can’t wait to get out there, and we’re going to have to create our own noise. As Lizzy said, I might have to be careful with how loud I am because everyone’s gonna be able to hear me.’’
Match-day simulation took place on Thursday. Among the strict protocols, Head Coach, Simone McKinnis, will need to be seated 1.5 metres from her Assistant, Di Honey - so not exactly whispering distance.
In general, so much will be different, but even the past few days have reinforced that everyone from the Suncorp Super Netball organisers to its participants must be nimble in dealing with an ever-changing landscape, and somehow find a way.
Due to parenthood and injury, Collingwood’s list has altered far more than the Vixens’ during the elongated pre-season. Only bookends Geva Mentor and Shimona Nelson remain from the Pies’ starting Semi-Final line-up, while the Vixens can call on six of their first seven picked on that seems-forever-ago September day.
“It is a real and strong rivalry, with great respect as well, and I think it’s a fantastic way for both teams - albeit playing in quarantine - to be kicking off our seasons,’’ says McKinnis.
The restrictions around group training, combined with a lack of formal practice matches, has limited the opportunities to adjust to new rules - including the Super Shot and rolling substitutions - and dictated an uncomplicated approach.
“We’ve just got to think about our game, and what we want to do, and keeping it pretty simple, to be honest, and then we tinker and adjust and adapt as we go along,’’ McKinnis says.
“The game style is still very much the same, but we haven’t been tested in formal practice matches, so you sort of don’t know where you’re at, and that’s where round one is going to tell us a fair bit.
“We can’t stress about anything - our preparation, or anything like that. We just focus on those basic skills and our basic game and doing it as well as we can. Then with each game we’ll learn more about ourselves.’’
While training has been the only reason for the Vixens to leave the iso-hub shared with the Magpies, group time has helped strengthen connections among a touring party that includes four training partners - two of whom will be selected for each game in the expanded squad of 12.
McKinnis also welcomes the decision to shelve the bonus point system until 2021 in another measure designed to assist with managing player loads. Remember, the first six rounds are due to be played in 23 days.
Personnel-wise, McKinnis also shares her thoughts on the three changes to the round one team sheet from April, 2019.
THE NEW: Kate Eddy (a former Vixens Training Partner, back from two seasons with the NSW Swifts, to replace the retired Renae Ingles).
“Kate’s been great. She’s just a real competitor and really dogged in the contest. Great reach and reads it well. Her ability to play across both goal defence and wing defence gives us really good flexibility down there.’’
THE NEW(ISH): Tayla Honey (whose debut season as a member of the primary 10 was delayed for 12 months by a ruptured Achilles suffered early in 2019).
“She’s just got great speed and athleticism. And, having sat out for so long, there’s a real hunger there to want to get out there and play. She’s desperate for the season to start. It’s been especially long for her.’’
THE OLD(ER) BEING NEW AGAIN: Mwai Kumwenda (who resumed in a limited role late in 2019 from an ACL tear).
“I think the break was good for ‘MJ’, and she’s just been really enjoying being out on court full-time - as much as we can say full-time! She’s definitely more the old MJ: cheeky, having a laugh, and I’m liking seeing that. The confidence about her play has been growing each week.’’
As for the coach herself, how will McKinnis feel hearing the sound of the much-delayed and frequently-imperilled first whistle soon after 5.30pm on Sunday?
“I’ll just be thinking how lucky we are that we’re getting to play, and happy that we are. That’s what I’ll be feeling, and then whatever happens in the game happens,’’ says the 2014 Premiership Coach.
“You think about what’s happening in Victoria, and I know we’re in a really fortunate situation to be able to play the game that we love. We need to be thankful for that.’’
Written by Linda Pearce