During one of the more, well, eventful pre-seasons of her celebrated coaching career, Simone McKinnis’ message to the Melbourne Vixens - and perhaps also to herself at times - has been a resolute “we’ll get there’’.
This Saturday, in front of a long-awaited home crowd at John Cain Arena, once the 2020 Suncorp Super Netball championship flag has been proudly unfurled and as a new-look attack end is unveiled in the grand final rematch against the West Coast Fever, they will.
Given the retirements of shooters Tegan Philip and Caitlin Thwaites, and then the season-ending foot surgery to champion playmaker Liz Watson, McKinnis has no doubt that many on the outside have been questioning the Vixens’ ability to back up their stellar championship win in the Queensland hub.
“But whether it’s being the hunted or not being the hunted, we’ve just got to be really focused on what we’re doing, and just go for it,’’ she says.
“The pre-season has definitely had its ups and downs and its challenges, unique to 2021, and there’s a bit that we’ve had to work through, but, to be honest, I’m actually feeling good and looking forward to heading into round one.’’
The attack end is still under construction, with new additions Kaylia Stanton and Ruby Barkmeyer building their understanding with Mwai Kumwenda and the midcourt, and McKinnis encouraged by the steady improvement of recruits who bring contrasting styles and differing levels of experience to the group.
“It’s obviously a significantly different attack end, and it was even prior to Lizzy’s surgery,’ she says. “It has taken us a while to work those new combinations and then with Lizzy out it was another spanner in the works.
“We’ve had to use our pre-season games in Sydney, in Ballarat and internally to really work on those connections and at times it hasn’t been pretty, but I think we’ve got to a good place now and we’ve had a really positive couple of weeks.’’
Watson’s place in the 10 will be filled on a temporary week-to-week basis rather than with a permanent replacement for now - starting with Hannah Mundy against the settled and formidable Fever, who can afford few mis-steps due to the loss of 12 premiership points for 2018/19 salary cap breaches.
An internal option, and one already being explored to add variety before Watson’s unavailability was confirmed, is for captain Kate Moloney to push forward into wing attack at times, with Allie Smith among the alternatives at centre.
The competition’s best defence has finally reassembled in recent weeks, too, following Jo Weston’s recovery from a calf strain to join Emily Mannix, Kate Eddy and Kadie-Ann Dehaney, all of whom had their preparations delayed by injury or travel-related issues.
“So it took us a while to get everybody on deck in terms of personnel,’’ McKinnis admits. “But the last two, perhaps three, weeks, we’ve had everybody on court working solidly together, and - even when she hasn’t been on court - Jo hasn’t missed a beat.’’
Weston has confirmed herself to be fit and ready following the injury suffered while in New Zealand on Diamonds’ duty that was more serious than initially thought. For the Vixens’ collective, it has also been what the star defender calls a “disjointed” pre-season.
“So that adds to the challenge, but if we learnt anything from last year it’s that it doesn’t matter what the world or the netball sphere throws at us, we know we have depth in our squad, we have amazing coaching staff and a phenomenal high performance environment.
“So it’s up to us just to back ourselves in and get out there on court and prove anyone who’s doubting our ability to make finals again wrong.’’
Jhaniele Fowler, typically, looms as the biggest obstacle in the season-opener, but recent trial games against the state men’s team and the Magpies have included practice on tall holding shooters in the Fowler mould.
Weston says the entire defensive unit thrives on the task of devising and executing strategies to limit the Jamaican’s impact, with great satisfaction whenever the best-laid plans succeed. Yet she is wary of a Fever team seeking to avenge its 2020 grand final defeat, and the urgency attached to losing those three games before this season has begun.
Captain Kate Moloney, meanwhile, has been reassured by the progress made in the lead-up to Saturday’s opener, saying the squad is excited by the challenges and the need to embrace some positional changes, even as - regardless of the external scepticism - the championship goal remains unaltered.
“Everyone always says that once you win the premiership you become the hunted, and if everyone’s writing us off maybe we won’t be!’’ Moloney laughs. “Look, we don’t really listen to that stuff. We know how hard it was to win last year but we know how good it felt when we did, as well, and we want more of that.
“We know it’s going to be tough, but we’re willing to do that work. So don’t get me wrong, there’s new roles and there’s new challenges, but I think it’s exciting and I can’t wait to see new people step up and grab it with both hands.’’
First, however, last year’s grand achievement will be celebrated in a ceremony preceding the Vixens’ first game at the renamed John Cain Arena since the final round of 2019. Over 21 long months later, a proud moment for all.
“It is, and it will be,’’ says McKinnis, the dual flag-winning coach. “We haven’t spoken about the premiership, but just to be back in Melbourne playing in front of our supporters who weren’t able to be there last year will be really special.
“Everyone’s looking forward to that, and I think it will really give the team a lift, too.’’
So, in just a few days, it begins. After a few nervous moments, the countdown clock is getting there. Just like McKinnis was determined that the Vixens eventually would.
Written by Linda Pearce.