It was a rare privilege that provided a unique insight: entry to the Melbourne Vixens’ inner sanctum for Simone McKinnis’ pre-match address and the post-game debrief.
To a place where, usually, only players and coaches are allowed.
The support staff cleared the area about 45 minutes before the clash with the table-topping West Coast Fever - leaving a row of 10 players with their backs to the wall and McKinnis and her assistants Di Honey and Joh Munro seated on newly-installed couches in front.
It has been a relaxed build-up, with jokes over resident DJ Jo Weston’s musical taste, plenty of smiles, banter and encouragement, a little dancing, and the promise from McKinnis of a little more if Weston hits upon her favourite song. No hints, though. “You’ll know if that’s it,’’ smiles the coach, “because I’ll dance.’’
This, however, is the time for talk. There had been plenty of that, as well as much hard work, in the two weeks since the second of the Vixens’ two consecutive losses on the road a fortnight earlier.
McKinnis tells her players they’ve done everything right over the bye period, and how impressed she is with the way they’ve pushed each other. They are, she believes, ready to “take it to the competition” in the back end of a season now at its halfway point.
A game that is made for the Vixens to play is, the coach predicts, the one “that will bring out the best of what the Vixens are.’’ Defensive pressure. Unrelenting effort. Skilful smarts in attack. Backing and supporting each other. Working hard. Always. Again and again and again.
Converting ball won. Controlling the tempo. Grinding, full-court defence. Talking, connecting, celebrating, enjoying. Winning the battle of hearts and minds. “We really want to take this competition on and this is the first step for us,’’ she says.
Strong, galvanising words. Indeed, there is just one mention of the Fever’s scoring machine, Jhaniele Fowler, for the message that shines through is that it is not about what the opposition might do, but what the Vixens can, and will.
More tactical specifics are kept for when the playing group splits into attack and defence ends. Captain/centre Kate Moloney takes a turn in both, and brings midcourt rookie Tayla Honey with her. Goal-keeper Emily Mannix, who has the unenviable task on Fowler, is urged to back herself. To be bold.
The last words are Moloney’s. They are familiar, in that raspy, so-distinctive voice. “We’ve got this. Let’s go, girls.’’
And so, after a few last stretches and bathroom breaks, plus a few more of Weston’s favourite tunes, they do. A fine first quarter is followed by a truly brilliant second; their best of the season. After a whopping 26 goals, the lead is 43-27.
Back in the rooms, the mood is buoyant, McKinnis stressing the reasons for the monster haul, but also that “we haven’t done anything yet”. As good as it’s been, the job is only half finished.
West Coast rally in the third term, through the introduction of Kaylia Stanton at goal attack and then, 10 minutes in, the switch of circle defenders Courtney Bruce and Stacey Francis. But the Vixens rebound in the last to finish with a statement 74-60 victory, plus three valuable bonus points.
By the time McKinnis returns to loud cheering after completing her media duties, the extended Vixens’ family has gathered, ready to bang the walls and belt out a rousing rendition of the club song. Making a quiet guest appearance amid the din are the Ingles twins, Jacob and Milla; mum Renae with them on the floor, celebrating her first win in her second stint in the Vixens’ navy dress.
Then the rooms empty again, with only injured duo Emma Ryde and Khao Watts joining those who had gathered a few hours before. The debrief is a collaborative affair, as the key game objectives are revisited, with input and feedback welcome from any and all among the 12 willing to provide it. Including a few amusing moments that will remain in-house.
The wash-up: the Vixens had just toppled the top team on the ladder to stabilise a wobbling season; logged their highest score in a single Suncorp Super Netball quarter; played, during those 15 minutes, some of the best netball McKinnis says she has seen.
The message: it was not just a reward for the efforts of the previous fortnight, but evidence of what the Vixens are capable of producing.
Thus, a big step forward was the result of a supreme team effort from what is clearly a united force. Spending one memorable afternoon amid its heart is enough to confirm how strongly it beats.
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.