Grand Final debutante, Emily Mannix, is philosophical when discussing the size of the defensive task against the tallest and most prolific shooter in Suncorp Super Netball (SSN): West Coast Fever colossus, Jhaniele Fowler.
“It’s always a battle, and it’s a game where you just have to stay positive and remain focused and in the moment, because, look, the ball’s gonna go over your head a lot of the time,’’ the Melbourne Vixens goal keeper admits.
“So it’s just about staying in it, and being focused, and working with those around you as well. It’s a real team effort when you come up against the Fever, I think I look to the girls out the front 99 per cent of the time, to be honest!
“It's important to stay in play so we can build that pressure - just taking those opportunities when they’re there and making the most of them.’’
Mannix concedes that although height is Fowler’s most obvious attribute, centimetres alone - she will concede 10 - do not a great shooter make. The sixth-year Vixen played all 60 minutes (Fowler 49 goals) in the 68-59 win in Round 5, but missed with a calf problem the 63-63 draw in Round 10 (Fowler 59).
During it, Mannix joked from the sidelines that she had faked injury to avoid having to face the imposing Jamaican. And it was a discussion of Fowler’s strengths this week that prompted the 26-year-old defender to concede she might have just talked herself into a sleepless night.
“Jhaniele is so strong the way she holds the space, and she can pull in some really good balls as well - she’s got really strong hands, which sometimes you don’t see in tall goalers that ability to really rip it in. And obviously she can shoot from anywhere… So, really, it’s not that hard to play against her, after listing all those things she’s really good at!’’
As well as the Fever’s signature chuck-it-to-Fowler-from-anywhere strategy, another key element is an intensely-physical approach that prompted a frustrated Lightning goaler, Steph Wood, to declare at half-time of last weekend's Preliminary Final that the Fever were responsible for "a lot of grabbing and a lot of pulling of the bodies’’, but few penalties paid.
Mannix says the Vixens will not be bothered or intimidated, though, while determined not to give their rivals the chance for an early advantage of the kind the Sunshine Coast could ultimately not retrieve.
“I think it comes down to particular players,’’ says Mannix of the Fever's on-the-body tactics. “For myself, obviously Jhaniele is very strong but I wouldn’t say that she’s physical in a way that she’ll deliberately rough you up. That wouldn’t be her style. But I think some of their players, obviously that is their playing style.
"In saying that I think we come up well against them, because we’ve been able to prove that in those tough moments and the hard contests that we’re still able to get through, get the ball, and score off it.
“So I think our girls are up for that challenge and if that’s what they’re gonna bring, if they want to be physical, then bring it. I think we can work around it and use our smarts, especially, to conquer that.’’
Both teams are seeking their first SSN title, and although the Fever - as 2018 Grand Finalists - have come closest, the Vixens won national league flags in 2009 (with a line-up that included Caitlin Thwaites) and 2014 (with club games record-holder, Tegan Phillip - also retiring after Sunday's last hurrah - part of a group featuring young trio Kate Moloney, Liz Watson and Jo Weston).
How easy it all had seemed back then for the talented first-and-second year players who, in the years since, have been reminded just how difficult premierships are to win. The Fever is an ominously in-form opponent peaking at the right time, with Moloney noting the intensity from the first whistle against the Lightning and expecting more of the same physicality this time.
“That is finals netball,’’ says Moloney, whose opponent will be the same as when she was a young wing defence in the 2014 decider, when the then Verity Simmons (now Charles) was the Firebirds wing attack.
“It’s gonna be tough out there and there’s gonna be someone on your body for the full 60 minutes. And I think offensively they put a lot of pressure on Lightning, but then they were able to transition the ball really well in attack as well.’’
The Co-Captain said it was every Vixen’s responsibility to apply sufficient pressure down the court to “really act as a shield for whoever the goal keeper is in that circle”. While Mannix is tipped to start, 192cm Kadie-Ann Dehaney is another option, and Jo Weston was pushed back from goal defence when Simone McKinnis’ team scrounged that improbable come-from-behind draw six weeks ago.
Which was, in a way, typical of the Vixens’ development this season, according to Watson, who has noticed belief and confidence fuelling a greater ability to find a way no matter what the situation.
“Everything’s been clicking into place and it’s almost like we’ve been building for this moment.’’
If so, it would bury a reputation as underperformers built before and during the first three SSN seasons that brought just one finals win, although coach McKinnis is far less interested in past critiques than in what is still possible in a uniquely challenging 2020.
“You know what? I don’t care if people call us underachievers, or whatever, because what’s past is past. It’s just not relevant,’’ says McKinnis.
“I worry about this next game and what we’re doing now. Everybody else can talk about could’ve and should’ve and would’ve. We’ll worry about what we can do.’’
Which, on recent evidence, is plenty.
From the regular season: 11 wins, two losses and one draw.
The minor premiership in the vault with three weeks to spare.
The stingiest defence and easily the best percentage in the competition.
An emphatic 63-47 defeat of the Lightning in the Major Semi.
One game to go.
With an added incentive, if one was needed (on top of farewelling Philip and Thwaites in style): #DoingItForVIC.
“We’re all just very aware how tough it is down in Victoria,’’ McKinnis says. “It’s just hard and we just want to do something positive. We know that there’s people watching who get some cheer out of what we’re doing and we’d just love to be able to take a trophy back.’’
Written by Linda Pearce
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