Melbourne Vixens may have won the opening two skirmishes in ‘The Battle’ for Victorian netball supremacy, but coach Simone McKinnis expects state bragging rights to again be fiercely contested in the marquee Suncorp Super Netball opener.
“Being the best team in Melbourne is the first step towards being the best team in the country,’’ McKinnis said ahead of Saturday’s first round clash with the Magpies at Hisense Arena.
“I know the Magpies desperately want to start the season with a win - and a win over us, in particular.’’
The key inclusion for Collingwood has been former Diamonds’ goaler Erin Bell, most recently of the Adelaide Thunderbirds, but McKinnis has also noted a significant addition to the Vixens’ squad that won the 2017 minor premiership before successive losses to eventual grand finalists Sunshine Coast Lightning and GIANTS Netball.
“I do feel like there’s a bit of a harder edge to them than there was last year,’’ said the reigning SSN Coach of the Year.
“There’s a toughness that I think has grown, which is an important element for us. Just the aggression and the way they go about things every session has been really good.’’
That comes with maturity and familiarity, McKinnis believes. While the bulk of the Vixens’ 2016 squad was retained for Super Netball’s debut season, it was augmented by the likes of key shooter Mwai Kumwenda in a new partnership with the back-from-injury Tegan Philip.
“Going into last year, they had no idea what they were capable of,’’ McKinnis said.
“You’re just going in blind and you’re just giving it everything you’ve got, and that doesn’t change, but they’re more aware of what they’re capable of now. They’re also very well aware, though, that there’s a lot of hard work ahead and it’s going to be a tougher competition again than last year.’’
McKinnis believes the Magpies will also benefit from their season together, noting that “it is a really challenging situation when a team is started from nothing, and especially a team that’s started from nothing and has those expectations around them’’. Only to finish fourth.
The Bell effect is the big unknown, for Collingwood spearhead Caitlin Thwaites was the competition’s leading scorer in the home-and-away rounds with 594 goals at 92%, but lacked support from a rotating cast of goal attacks.
“Caitlin Thwaites, you’d almost say she’s been unstoppable in recent times, and overcoming that is one of the biggest challenges for us,’’ said McKinnis, who is confident goal keeper Emily Mannix will be fit to resume after concussion. “But that comes from what work we’re doing out in front, which includes Erin Bell.
“With the players and the calibre of talent that they’ve got, there’s no weakness as such. We’ve got to be on top of our game all across the court to be in the contest.’’
The Vixens’ only personnel change was thrust upon them by right knee fracture suffered by goal shooter Emma Ryde on the eve of the season, with her replacement Sam Gooden promoted from Collingwood training partner to Vixens’ front-line less than a week ago.
Yet a short settling-in period for Gooden contrasts with a marathon off-season for all eight clubs as a result of the Commonwealth Games, and, by the first whistle, it will have been 322 days since the Vixens’ last official match. That was a home preliminary final on Hisense Arena, where, at 3pm on Saturday, netball will make its long-awaited return.
“You know it’s just going to be a really tough, well, battle, for want of a better word, out there,’’ McKinnis said. “And part of it is that it’s the first game, so everybody’s slightly on edge. You really don’t know where you’re at until you get into that first game.’’
Which, this time, is the third edition of The Battle - rounds one (Vixens 58-55) and seven (Vixens 60-56) last year having added another compelling rivalry to the must-see duels in the nation’s sporting capital.
“I think it’s fantastic,’’ says McKinnis, whose playing experience included the local derby years of the Phoenix and Kestrels, from whose Melbourne-based ashes the dual title-winning Vixens proudly emerged.
“It’s a totally different crowd feel, and that’s the only time you have that - pretty much half the crowd cheering for you, half the crowd cheering against. There’s a greater intensity about the build-up, as well, and for me it’s very real. It started last year and it will continue on, which is great for the sport.’’
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.