By Linda Pearce In the early stages of this engrossing second Suncorp Super Netball season, the full impact of the competition’s most dramatic and contentious change is yet to be felt. With the bonus points system - one that rewards quarters as well as matches won - still in its infancy, many questions remain.
How, over the full 14 pre-finals rounds, will players be tested physically and mentally by the relentless intensity that comes with so much being at stake even when the result has already been decided?
And how much will that benefit the teams with the deepest benches?
To what degree will ladder positions be affected, considering that, after three rounds, there has been no distortion of the order, yet statistics show that the Southern Steel would not have made finals in 2009 and 2010 with the new points system despite winning more games.
How will the incentive to claim each quarter impact on the minutes given to developing players, and at what longer-term cost to Australian netball, generally?
Certainly, it seems clear that it’s not just the rusted-on traditionalists that have reservations about the new system, which is unashamedly designed to woo TV viewers and engage all fans for the full 60 minutes of playing time. As in the Vixens’ round one defeat of the Magpies, the victors can claim the four (match) points but the vanquished can still pocket three.
Realignment, writ large.
Netball Victoria’s General Manager of High Performance, Bek Webster, says the jury will remain out until more data is available mid-season, and in the meantime is maintaining a watchful eye on the situation.
“It’s not something that we were really wanting to see or felt was needed in the league, but it is what it is, and we’re backing our team, just as we backed our team last year,’’ said Webster, admitting coaches are likely to “second-guess themselves” about the strategic management of the new system.
“Yes, in the background, we’re making sure we’re doing all our calculations and seeing how we’re tracking, but if we come away with the wins then we should be sitting in the four at finals time. So there’s not much we can do except just get on with it.’’
Interestingly, the ladder positions are still as they would have been compared with a simple four-points-for-the-win model (up from two last year, for the sake of the exercise), with no bonuses included.
After three rounds, the unbeaten Fever would still be a game clear on top, the Giants and Firebirds equal second and the Swifts and Vixens similarly separated by goal percentage only. At the other end, the Lightning would be level with the cellar-dwelling Thunderbirds on zero points - the difference this year is that six winning quarters have left them with, well, six more than previously.
As for whether it has contributed to closer scores, what cannot be disputed is the number of tight finishes already in 2018. Take struggling Adelaide out of the equation and the average winning margin heading into round four was just three goals, with four of nine decided by only one.
“Perhaps we are seeing closer games because of this points system. Having so many games come down to the wire is making the games more exciting,’’ says Webster, while admitting the club-specific benefits are more subtle.
“I don’t think any team after a loss is walking away and going ‘oh, that’s OK, we got a few points’. You still have that losing feeling. But it’s probably at the end of the year when we’re looking at the ladder that it might be a nice little bit of compensation - if you were going to be sitting in third spot on the ladder, a couple of quarters can get you up into second and get you that second chance.’’
Developmentally, what of the temptation to elevate the quest for bonus points ahead of giving exposure to the bench rookies, even if the reduction of lists from 12 to 10 for season one of SSN leaves less room for experimentation and youth?
As Giants captain Kim Green said after the opening round win over the Giants, and, specifically, the moment when they led by five but trailed by one for the quarter: “I think that’s where I felt we couldn’t afford to start to play around or test a few things."
Green also said this: “Playing, I hated it. In the nicest way possible. I understand why it’s in place. It does create that spectacle within the spectacle, a game within the game. But players just want to play netball.’’
The Vixens, too, understand the need for the participation-sport juggernaut to attract bigger broadcast ratings, and interest, generally, but not at the expense of the sport’s integrity. And certainly not as a precursor to the introduction of the two-point shot, for example.
“Our playing group are really aware of where netball’s sitting in the landscape at the moment, in terms of we do need more viewers, we do need more people to be getting behind netball,’’ says Webster.
“They know that we’ve had some big changes and they’ve generally benefited from the establishment of SSN and they’re really open to trying things out from a broadcast perspective. But without putting words in their mouth I think they really do feel that we’ve got a great product and we’ve got a great game and perhaps there could be more of a commitment into actually selling it before these really big changes need to be implemented.’’
This one is big enough, and if the new system boosts ratings, attendances, interest, or all three, it will have done its job. Certainly, it has emerged as the catalyst for some robust debate and discussion, adding a new element to an already-fascinating season.
In the words of national selector, former Australian captain and current SSN commentator Annie Sargeant: “I think we’ve got to support it. It’s out there, so we have to coach it, play it, embrace it, and fans have to get their head around it, because it has the potential to make for very exciting theatre in the game.
“And we’ve got to be about evolution and change. If, by the end of the season it has to be re-evaluated, so it has to be. But I’m part of the crew to put the message out there. We want to make the game exciting.’’