Melbourne Vixens are undaunted by the prospect of a third road trip in as many weeks, while respectful of a Sunshine Coast Lightning outfit that is gradually playing itself into the type of form that characterised its championship-winning debut in 2017.
“It’s similar, I guess, to the Lightning last year - they were off to a slow start but you know that they’re going to gel together and really come good as the season progresses,’’ says Vixens vice-captain and Diamonds star Liz Watson of the team that has won its past two games after dropping the first three.
“They’ve got such strong players and so many international players across their line-up, as well. But I think we match up quite well against them one-on-one, so the job will be to beat our own player individually, first, and if we all do that then hopefully we have a win.’’
The greatest strengths are at either end for the Sunshine Coast: the all-Diamond shooting duo of Caitlin Bassett and Steph Wood in attack and, in defence, England captain Geva Mentor (who is second behind her one-time Vixens teammate Jo Weston for defensive rebounds and a runaway league leader for deflections) and South African Karla Pretorius (who heads the 2018 intercept count).
“It’s both their circles,’’ says Watson, of the rival that upset the Vixens 56-55 in last year’s major semi in Melbourne to book a Queensland grand final in the inaugural Suncorp Super Netball season.
“In defence, Karla’s a bit more on-the-body, that tight defender, and Geva’s the one that will come out for intercepts or get that ball that you didn’t think she was in a position to get. So their combinations in both their circles are probably what really hold their team up.’’
Chloe Watson will not return for the fourth-placed Vixens, whose record after five rounds reads WWLWL, including last Sunday’s 58-51 loss to the Giants. With the bye looming after round six, Watson will be given an extra week to recover from illness, while her knee injury is also being carefully managed.
Thus, Renae Ingles will remain in the 10-strong squad, having been called off the bench just over six minutes into the third quarter against the Giants. Khao Watts had started out filling her house-mate Watson’s usual wing defence role, while Kate Moloney and Liz Watson were also switched around in the midcourt.
Yet the latter insists that the shuffling is nothing more than what occurs regularly during training sessions, with a greater emphasis since the pre-season started on equipping players to play their second position as effectively as their first.
She also praised the influence of 31-year-old Ingles, the 67-Test and 2009 Vixens premiership player who returned briefly to Super Netball with the Adelaide Thunderbirds after the 2016 birth of twins Jacob and Milla before retiring last May.
“Renae gets what an elite environment’s about and what it takes to be at this level, and she’s been in the Vixens before,’’ Watson says.
“She’s been able to share a lot from looking at the game as an outsider; she has still been watching the games, and has great insight into how teams operate and how she thinks we can combat them.
“So obviously her experience and all of that is great, but she’s come in, there’s been no fuss, she’s doing everything that she needs to do for the team and that’s what we need right now with Chloe’s injury.’’
Also required by coach Simone McKinnis is a more consistent effort than the second quarter lapse that proved so costly against the Giants - a five goal deficit that contrasted with just one goal or two differences for the other three terms.
“Simone’s disappointed, but she said it was ‘easy fixes’; it was what we did that got us into trouble. Her main message was ‘don’t just push that game aside, look at it, learn from it and we’ll be in a good position going forward’.’’
A short week in terms of preparation means a greater emphasis on recovery from the Vixens’ trusted strength and conditioning staff. The team flies out on Friday, for the 3pm game on Saturday at the intimate USC Stadium.
“Everyone’s doing really well,’’ says Watson. “We love travelling and it’s always fun to do all the things that you do off the court as well. All our programs have all been managed so that we all feel as fresh as we can going into the Sunny Coast.’’
The Vixens have one more win than the fifth-placed Lightning but, due to the bonus points system that also rewards quarters won, hold just a one-point advantage on a tightly-bunched ladder.
“The most important thing is to actually win the games. But you can see how close the quarters are becoming and how important these points are, so, as the season goes on, you start to think about it a little bit more,’’ Watson admits.
“So every team’s obviously going out there to win eight points now. But first things first: winning the game is the main priority, then getting as many bonus points as we can is really going to help out with ladder positions at the end of the season, especially with how close this competition is.’’
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.