Super Netball returns to normality in 2021 but competition is more agile than ever

Super Netball returns to normality in 2021 but competition is more agile than ever

After taking a financial hit to relocate Super Netball to a Queensland hub in 2020 – a season marred by a series of controversies – league bosses are hoping for a return to normality come round one this weekend, while also quietly planning to pivot if necessary.

The Covid-compromised iteration of the world’s best netball competition, won by the Melbourne Vixens, was equal parts triumph and calamity. Completing a full, albeit condensed season, thanks mainly to an olive branch from Annastacia Palaszczuk’s state government showed the league’s growing maturity, but a number of incidents across the season continue to cast a shadow.

The year saw anger over late rule changes, including the introduction of the super shot, the send-off of Giant Kristiana Manu’a – which raised questions about the need for an appeal process – and a racism row where the competition’s only First Nations player, Firebird Jemma Mi Mi, was left on the bench in Indigenous round.

There was also ex-Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett leaving the Australian league for New Zealand after an ugly fall-out with the Giants, and reports of a Firebirds fan spitting at Fever’s Verity Charles on a Brisbane street.

Post-season, West Coast were fined $300,000 and stripped of 12 competition points this season for serious and deliberate salary cap breaches.

Former national captain turned commentator Liz Ellis told Guardian Australia that Super Netball bosses and franchises have everything crossed for some semblance of normality in 2021. She said administrators would have been “very, very nervous” when Perth went into lockdown at the weekend, throwing Fever’s plans to travel to Melbourne for a round one grand final rematch against the Vixens into doubt.

“There’s no secret it cost a fortune [to hub] and Netball Australia incurred some pretty heavy financial penalties,” Ellis said. “So I suspect there would have been some butterflies.”

While the Fever were ultimately able to stay in Western Australia and will fly as planned Friday, it’s a reminder that Covid remains a clear and present danger to the league. But unlike in 2020 when it had to scramble, the league is now prepared.

“There are back-up cities and back-up venues for all games, a plan A, B and C. But I am optimistic we will get a normal, full season, in a home-and-away sort of manner,” Ellis said.

Another former Diamonds turned pundit, Kim Green, said the league must be conscious of the mental health ramifications of last-minute changes.

“A hub was a great option last year, but we know the mental load on everyone was pretty significant, so [seeing] other codes shifting to ensure players get home to their support networks, that’s super-important to learn from,” Green said.

The league has fixtured a full 14-week home-and-away season, plus three weeks of finals, with a grand final slated for 29 August. The eight teams are set to host seven home games and the number of fans in stands will depend on local caps.

The divisive two-goal super shot and rolling substitutions are back, but the bonus point system – which saw an extra competition point awarded for every quarter won, used in 2018 and 2019 – has been scrapped. And after nine draws in the last two seasons, there’ll be extra time.

“Having bonus points and super shots at the end of every quarter, it would get very messy … you have one or the other,” Ellis said.

Given teams have now had a preseason to prepare for it, how the super shot plays out will be of interest. Collingwood captain and defender Geva Mentor admitted this week that some defensive units would choose to concede one-point goals, rather than risk a super.

Mentor added that sides should prepare for opposition teams to sub on two long-bomb specialists when the rule is in play in the last five minutes of each quarter.

One side that didn’t rely on supers in 2020 was premiers, the Vixens, who enter a rebuilding phase after the loss of shooters Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip, both retired, and shock season-ending surgery to Diamond wing attack Liz Watson.

Ellis and Green agree the Melburnians will be at the “opposite end of the ladder” this year.

The other grand finalists, the Fever “will either come first or last”, according to Ellis, who said it will be “all about maths” for Stacey Marinkovich’s side as it tries to claw back 12 docked points.

Under new coach Megan Anderson, the Firebirds – with new mothers and old team mates Kim Ravaillion and Gretel Bueta, as well as the best emerging defensive pair in the league, Kim Jenner and Tara Hinchliffe – are favourites for many.

For Green, it’s all about Bueta. “I saw her in preseason and no one could stop her. She was incredible, just wicked. She’ll have a standout season and win the MVP for the whole league,” Green said.

Another key change is to squad sizes, which shrink back to 10, plus five training partners. Clubs were allowed 12 in 2020, because of the condensed nature of the season, and also in the second half of 2019 because of the Netball World Cup.