“There was nothing easy about it. But it’s going to be even harder this year.’’

7 months ago

When coach Simone McKinnis addressed the Melbourne Vixens in their first team meeting as reigning Suncorp Super Netball champions, she was keen to raise what had been accomplished in such extraordinary circumstances in 2020.

Month: January. Venue: MSAC. Message: clear.

“It was about reminding ourselves of what we achieved and being proud of that,’’ says McKinnis, acknowledging that last year’s triumph will be discussed constantly, including in the context of potentially going back-to-back, so wanting to mention it internally, first.

“But it was also recognising how hard we worked for it over a lot of years, what we went through to get there and knowing that it’s going to take more, and it’s going to take improvement across the board, and in different ways - because that’s what we want again.

“There was nothing easy about it. But it’s going to be even harder this year.’’

It will also, McKinnis believes, fuel her players’ hunger. Among the current squad of 10, only Kate Moloney, Liz Watson and Jo Weston were part of the Vixens’ previous flag - also under McKinnis - in 2014.

Suffice to say that no-one involved wants to wait seven years for the sequel to this one. Bring it on.

By necessity, they had also moved on quickly from the famous 66-64 grand final thriller against the West Coast Fever, spending a couple of nights celebrating the result as well as the end of hub life in Brisbane, before dispersing to various destinations.

A handful headed north to the Diamonds’ camp in Noosa, others embarked on well-earned Queensland holidays, some returned to Victoria after more than three months interstate.

Among the takeaways from an SSN competition unlike any other was the fact that there was nothing the Vixens faced that they could not handle. And while disruptions have also been a recurring theme in the current pre-season, much has been learned.

“We’re very good at getting on with it, working out what we’re going to get out of the situation and how can it help us get stronger,’’ McKinnis says.

“So there were huge lessons from last year to take into this year. Nothing’s a given, and it is a new season, but we want to go in there wanting more of what we achieved last year.

“The real benefits from being in the hub together - the connections and the experiences - are some of the things now that we’re like ‘how do we re-create those things that kept us strong last season when we’re at home back here in Melbourne'.’’

Among the curve balls already thrown in the lead-up to the 1 May opening round have been the delay and uncertainty around the scheduling of the Constellation Cup, as well as difficulties securing flights back to Australia for Malawian Mwai Kumwenda (who emerged from quarantine on Friday) and Jamaican Kadie-Ann Dehaney (who exited her hotel isolation seven days earlier).

Kate Eddy required a lengthy rehabilitation from the foot injury she so courageously carried into the grand final, and fellow defender Emily Mannix needed surgery to fix a hip problem she had been forced to manage for far longer.

Some days, when Diamonds’ starting trio Moloney, Watson and Weston were in New Zealand, McKinnis was left to work with just Allie Smith and recruits Kaylia Stanton and Ruby Barkmeyer from her primary list. But that has meant valuable time spent with training partners and the extended squad, with all 10 front-liners resuming full training together this week for the first time.

In times of Covid, another theme endures: expect the unexpected. “All the planning in the world, we’re ready to chuck it out at a minute’s notice!’’ laughs McKinnis. “There’s no guarantees for anything.’’

One near-certainty, though, appears to be Watson’s elevation to the Diamonds’ captaincy after leading the national team in three of its four Constellation Cup Tests.

Worthy?

“My word,’’ says McKinnis of the current Vixens co-skipper.

“Lizzie’s cool-headed, calm and composed. She speaks up when something needs to be said. She’s honest and loyal, and she’s one of the best players in the world - consistent and just a really good teammate. Always team first.’’

As McKinnis watched the 3-1 loss to the Silver Ferns from her Geelong home, she was grateful that her trio - the starting midcourters for the last three Tests - was at least given extensive court-time after being forced to quarantine while spending almost a month away.

“I’m disappointed for them because you want the Diamonds to get the win, but from a selfish point of view at Vixens our players were on court playing, and playing at the highest level. So, in terms of preparation, (it was) fantastic.’’

Weston, repurposed from circle defence to the wing for much of the series, sent a few cheeky texts to her club coach - perhaps the greatest ever in the position - calling herself ‘’the next Simone McKinnis” and proclaiming herself a midcourter now.

“Jo did a great job in wing defence and she does do a really good job in wing defence, and we saw a little bit of that capacity with us last year,’’ says McKinnis, who would nevertheless have liked to see Weston wearing the GD bib for more than just a portion of game one.

Another quiet wish is that she could have savoured such a grand Super Netball victory moment for a little longer, instead of starting list planning and preparation for 2021 within days.

“It didn’t take very long before it seemed like an age ago that it had all happened,’’ McKinnis says. “It probably passed too quickly... you wish you could linger a bit longer, but it’s just such a quick turnaround.’’

And a new season fast approaching.

Marvellous. And repeat: bring it on.

Written by Linda Pearce

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