“It was busy, it was full on, but it was a valuable three days."

3 months ago

Sometimes, in this second successive COVID-disrupted pre-season, it must seem to Melbourne Vixens coach Simone McKinnis that the countdown clock to Suncorp Super Netball’s 1 May opening round has started to tick awfully fast.

Sometimes. But not for long.

“You think about the work that needs to be done, and it does seem like there’s not much time - but there is,’’ says the dual championship coach. “There’s time, and it’s about building across April, to round one, and building again from there.’’

Last week in Sydney, the injury-depleted reigning champions unveiled their new-look attack end and experimented with an expanded group including a quartet of young training partners during practice matches against the Giants, Swifts and Lightning.

On their first collective trip interstate since completing a triumphant SSN season in Queensland last October, the scoreboard, though, was not what mattered.

McKinnis stressed that the results that did were those related to the growth of the likes of rookie shooter Ruby Barkmeyer and second-year midcourter Allie Smith, plus extended squad members Tayla Honey, Hannah Mundy, Gabby Coffey and Jordan Cransberg, as did gathering more ‘’intel” for the weeks ahead and adding important playing minutes to bodies in need of match conditioning.

“We improved across the three days, and it was just good to get away and spend time together on and off the court ,’’ says McKinnis.

“Having dinners, hanging out together and laughing and mucking around, which we haven’t had for a long time, that’s all just as important as what’s happening out on court.

“It was busy, it was full on, but it was a valuable three days. What I took out of it is that there’s lots of work to be done, but I feel positive about what we can do over the coming weeks and getting where we need to be for round one. I do.’’

What was scheduled to be the squad’s first full week together went ahead without superstar Liz Watson, who remained in Melbourne for an appointment with the specialist still monitoring the right ankle injury she suffered in round 11 last year.

Defender Jo Weston travelled with the group but is yet to resume from the calf injury suffered while on Constellation Cup duty for the Diamonds in early March. Instead, her roles included ballgirl, sideline coach, supportive and encouraging senior figure and typically irreverent interviewer.

Indeed, McKinnis noted approvingly the leadership growth she is seeing from Weston as well as Kate Eddy (foot - limited across the three matches to six quarters) and Emily Mannix (returning from November hip surgery and able to play just four).

Co-captain Kate Moloney was also managed physically after a demanding tour of (national) duty in New Zealand, although McKinnis expects her full list to be available for the round one grand final rematch at John Cain Arena.

“There’s a few that haven’t been out on court playing at that level for a while, and even for those that are coming back from rehab, it’s that match conditioning that allows you to be playing at the highest level across four quarters,’’ she says.

“We were probably a bit loose with the ball, so it’s that decision-making and tidying those things up on transition, both ways. And definitely, in that attack end, building those connections and combinations.’’

A week after completing quarantine, Mwai Kumwenda made a welcome return, the Malawian to be partnered this year by Kaylia Stanton (West Coast Fever) and Ruby Barkmeyer (promoted from VNL) in place of retired duo Tegan Philip and Caity Thwaites.

“They’ve slotted in really well. Obviously Ruby’s more familiar with everybody, as a former training partner,’’ says McKinnis. "But Kaylia has really embraced being part of the group, and you’re always impressed with people who are prepared to move and take on the challenge.

"Kaylia has got that height, but she has got that athleticism, she’s got great elevation and speed, and it’s just adapting that and utilising that, learning about Vixens now and the different goal attack and goal shooter role within the Vixens’ structure.

“We worked all the different combinations - Kaylia out, and Ruby back and MJ back - and there were ups and downs across the three games, but I think there were some really positive signs. Those connections and combinations just got better across the three days.’’

As difficult and disjointed as the 2020 pre-season was, this is a different phase of the coronavirus pandemic, for although group training has been possible virtually throughout, circumstances have conspired to make numbers sparse at times.

Complications have included the late finish to last year, delayed Constellation Cup dates, quarantine requirements and the difficulty securing flights back to Australia for imports Kumwenda and Kadie-Anne Dehaney.

“You’ve got to be able to make the best of it, and so now that I’ve got the full group together we’ve just got to really make the most of this next block over the next four of five weeks before the first round,’’ said McKinnis,’’ whose team next plays the Adelaide Thunderbirds in Ballarat on April 10-11.

“I’m just excited about really getting stuck into things together and seeing the improvement that we can make in this time that we have.’’

Written by Linda Pearce

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