Melbourne Vixens players may have accrued the most frequent flyer points of any Suncorp Super Netball team during the month-long World Cup break, but the balance of their quest for a top two spot will be played out almost exclusively at home.
Eight of the 10 Vixens travelled to the UK in some capacity after impressive away defeats of the Firebirds and Giants ensured their team would start the second stage of the unique two-part SSN fixture in third place.
Lizzy Watson, Jo Weston and Caitlin Thwaites are with the Diamonds in Liverpool, where Kadie-Ann Dehaney is representing Jamaica. Ine-Mari Venter’s World Cup debut with South Africa was scuttled by a calf tear, while Kate Moloney, Emily Mannix and Tegan Philip relaxed in Italy for a week after completing their duties as Australian training partners in Manchester.
But, other than the round 12 trip to Sydney to take on the NSW Swifts, none will need to venture any further than Melbourne Arena between now and - ideally - finals time, with visits from the Thunderbirds, Fever and Lightning and then a derby against the Magpies scheduled on the court both Melbourne teams share.
“There’s nothing easy about the back end, but there’s no easy game, anyway,’’ says Vixens coach Simone McKinnis. “We’ve had a lot of away games in that first part of the season, so it’s actually nice with those home games; there’s quite a routine to the week, particularly because (most of) the games are on a Sunday.’’
While a strong start to the season made way for a slightly “clunky” middle stretch that delivered one win, a draw and two losses from rounds 4-7, McKinnis admits she was very pleased with the Vixens’ strong response and two “critically important” wins before the break.
“One, internally, as a team, wanting to find our form again,’’ she said. “But, two, to be getting those points on the board, because otherwise you’re open slather to be falling out of the four.’’
Trailing the ladder-leading Swifts (7-1-1) and Lightning (7-2) by nine and two points respectively, the Vixens (6-2-1) will resume on Sunday, 28 July with a 14-point break over the fourth-placed Magpies and their sights firmly on the top two.
“One of the things I’m really happy about is that individually they’ve had their ups and downs at times in this first part, and I just really enjoyed the way that they’ve been able to find their way through challenging situations together, and pull it back together again heading into the break,’’ McKinnis said.
“There were some tough times, and the way that, individually and as a team, they've been able to find our way and get back to playing like we did second half against Firebirds and then leading into Giants - I enjoy that because that’s about the resilience and strength of character of the group.’’
McKinnis nominated Renae Ingles as a standout at wing defence, and shooter Caitlin Thwaites as a strong target and presence in the latter rounds, particularly. “She’s been great, and then that combination with Tegan has been really nice.’’
The great unknown remains the World Cup effect, with McKinnis admitting it feels “weird” not to be playing for such a lengthy stretch just over halfway through a season.
Ingles and Lara Dunkley have kept up their match minutes in the Bupa VNL, while the Diamonds’ training trio returns for their first gym session on Thursday after McKinnis encouraged them to remain in Europe for a well-earned break.
For the World Cup participants, the quick-turnaround scenario was simulated, at least in a physical sense, after their return from the January Quad Series in England.
“So they know what it feels like, and they’ve done it, but you just don’t know the emotions of a World Cup, and how that will or won’t finish, and how that impacts on the players coming back. That’s just up in the air,’’ McKinnis said.
“But I’m rapt for the training partners to just let it go and switch off, and to be away from netball and from us for a few days before they come back. I think that will be really good for them, and I feel confident with them coming back in.’’
To this stage of the season, McKinnis believes her team has better managed the bonus point system to which she remains opposed, while using it as a way of quantifying the four-quarter effort the Vixens continue to seek.
“It certainly was a focus for us this season - just an awareness of those points and winning quarters,’’ McKinnis said. “Not that I agree with it, but it’s also an indicator and a measure for us of that consistency, which is something that we needed as a team, anyway.
“You’ve just got to work hard for them each quarter, each game, and they will be important for top four positions, but then also whether it’s (finishing) one, two, three or four. It’s going to be tight.’’
The Vixens will return to Melbourne Arena on Sunday 28 July at 3.30pm to take on the Adelaide Thunderbirds, purchase your tickets here.
Written by Linda Pearce