Tag: sophie drakeford-lewis

VNSL 2021: Team review – Team Bath

THE 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) season is officially done and dusted meaning it is now time for our postseason reviews. Arguably the in-form franchise for the season, Team Bath were unfortunate to peak a fraction too soon and just missed out on top spot and finishing the 2021 season with a premiership in hand.

Season form: 17-3 (3rd/runner up)

One of the most dynamic teams all season, there is no doubt Team Bath deserved to be in that grand final matchup to finish the season, however their huge season culminated in a runners up award with the side ultimately peaking a fraction too soon. Bath remained undefeated atop the table for majority of the season before two straight losses in the lead-up to finals led to a third place finish for the home and away season. Despite a heart-in-your-mouth victory over Thunder to claim a spot in the grand final, Bath’s 2021 season was left wanting as the side was shut down from all angles in the biggest match of the year. That being said, Bath’s impressive form all season was not just down to their players, but the connections across the court. The side with the least goals conceded overall, it was down to the workrate of Layla Guscoth, Eboni Usoro-Brown and Imogen Allison, who created a constant buffer in the back-end that was only bolstered by the speed, aerial ability and netball nous of Serena Guthrie through the centre. Elsewhere, Kim Borger and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis were hard to stop when they got going, finding space aplenty in the front-end and rarely missing when they went to post, as Rachel and Jess Shaw propelled ball in with ease. The side also found time and space to blood up developing players, with Tash Pavelin and Betsy Creak both finding plenty of court time. 

Best win: Def. Manchester Thunder 41-39, Semi-final

Team Bath had plenty of impressive wins throughout the season, however it is their semi-final victory over a hunting Manchester Thunder that takes the cake with Bath coming in off the back of some shaky and inconsistent form. Whilst Bath had been in control all season, its last couple of closer encounters really appeared to hit the squad for six as they entered their clash with the Thunder, however the tightly-fought matchup this time went the way of Bath, 43-39. It was a combination of accuracy and a pressing defensive unit which eventually handed Bath the win, as Thunder piled on more attempts at goal but could not get past the long arms of Usoro-Brown and Guscoth with ease. While it appeared on the stats sheet like the Thunder were leading all-comers, Bath’s composure came good in the big moments, utilising their starters throughout the entire clash as Thunder was forced to throw the bibs around. Guscoth and Allison were immense combining for 10 of the side’s 13 turnovers, stopping the ball from entering the circle or allowing Usoro-Brown time to cover Joyce Mvula before she found possession. While both Guthrie and Borger collected four unforced errors apiece, Guthrie more than made up for it with her strength and endurance, while Borger’s workload was immense, finishing with 32 goals from 33 attempts. Drakeford-Lewis also wreaked havoc with her nine goals, finding Borger with ease within the circle. 

Standout player: Layla Guscoth

Most Improved: Sophie Drakeford-Lewis

Upon return from a stint in the Suncorp Super Netball, there was no doubt Guscoth would be a real livewire for Bath this season, proving just about unstoppable when she was in form. The goal defender was rarely far from the contest, with her smooth movement, evasive footwork and long arms continuously earning her turnovers, while her renewed combination with Guthrie and Usoro-Brown was a sight to behold. The defender could create something out of nothing and played a significant role in leading her side to victory, as she led from the back and worked hard to pressurise the back-end of the court. Sitting second in both the intercepts and deflections categories, with 45 intercepts and 78 deflections across her 20 appearances, Guscoth was able to anticipate ball-movement down court and cleanly command possession. Coming in as most improved is Drakeford-Lewis, who may already have been part of the extended Roses squad this season, but did everything in her power to retain that position with another excellent season under her belt. A real team player and playmaker, Drakeford-Lewis was rarely far from the action with her speed, spatial awareness and ability to turn and shoot making her a force to be reckoned with time and time again. Her combination with Borger was paramount to the side’s success, with her vision enabling her to sight the goal shooter at the post while also zipping around the inside of the circle to edge closer and shoot from range. While Drakeford-Lewis has been a solid figure within this side for a couple of seasons now, she well and truly stopped up in 2021 putting up 285 goals at close to 92 per cent accuracy. 

 

Picture credit: Ben Lumley Photography

VNSL 2021: Loughborough Lightning make history with inaugural premiership

LOUGHBOROUGH Lightning have clinched the 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) premiership, defeating Team Bath by 17 goals, 49-32. It was a history-making performance from the Lightning, claiming their first VNSL trophy after being a part of the league for 16 years and playing in three grand finals prior.

Despite having the history books against them the Lightning managed to find a way to wow Team Bath who had not lost a grand final once making it to the final dance. The Lightning got off to a hot start skipping out to a handy lead thanks to an 11-7 first term. Their composure with ball in hand and resilience was on full display, pushing past the defence of Team Bath to control momentum. Mary Cholhok was proving to be a nuisance under the post for Bath who were unable to quell her influence as the Ugandan shooter commanded the ball time and time again. Her connection with Hannah Joseph was becoming increasingly hard to stop as she hit circle edge and opened up the circle to feed into Cholhok with plenty of ease.

The Lightning continued to extend their lead in the second quarter with their four-goal margin quickly turning into an eight-goal lead by half time, shutting out Bath’s offensive skill. Kim Borger and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis were working hard in attack for Bath, with the connection and partnership inside the circle keeping the scoreboard ticking over but they simply could not get enough ball. The Lightning were smothering any silky ball movement through the court with Sam May in her final game before retirement keen to not leave anything in the tank.

With the game slipping away from them, Team Bath came out with a real pep in their step in the third quarter to try and peg back the margin. They started to capitalise off the vital turnovers they were picking up and gained some much needed momentum. But it is not known as the premiership quarter for no reason with Beth Cobden elevating her game for Loughborough. The wing defence came into her own throughout the third with her dynamic movement and closing speed allowing her to get hands to ball, which in turn enabled her to negate the influence of Rachel Shaw in wing attack. Each time Team Bath looked like they found their way back into the contest, Lightning found a way to restore their composure and keep their noses in front.

Despite reducing the margin by a goal at three quarter time the final term did not go to plan for Team Bath who were quite simply shell-shocked. The Lightning could sense a win and with that, put the foot down to control proceedings and dominate play for the final 12 minutes. A blistering 18-8 final term proved to be the nail in the coffin for Team Bath as they were left in the lurch. Nat Panagarry was electric through the midcourt as Ella Clark also impressed under the post to help the Lightning forge ahead. Team Bath looked to the bench for answers and to help stem the bleeding but it was too little, too late as the Lightning ran rampant and secured their inaugural premiership.

Cholhok finished the game with 38 goals to her name and reeled in four rebounds as partner in crime, Clark shot 11 out of her 13 attempts. Panagarry was solid in attack and defence but it was the performance from Cobden that gifted her the MVP for the game racking up three intercepts and five deflections as she constantly bobbed up at the right time. Jasmin Odeogberin was strong in goal defence collecting two intercepts and five deflections as May left nothing to chance with her two rebounds and an intercept. Borger was the main port of call for Team Bath with her 22 goals while Drakeford-Lewis struggled to have a hug influence on the scoreboard only slotting four goals for the game. Serena Guthrie was well held by Panagarry but still managed a deflection while Imogen Allison did not have an overwhelming influence. It was a tough day at the office for Layla Guscoth and Eboni Usoro-Brown as the pair collected plenty of attention from the umpire combining for 26 penalties but did still manage nine deflections in the loss. All in all it was a classy performance from Sara Francis-Bayman‘s Lightning, well and truly earning their first piece of silverware in VNSL history.

Semi-final:

Leeds Rhinos (34) defeated by Manchester Thunder (43)

With the grand final taking centre stage the battle between Leeds Rhinos and Manchester Thunder somewhat flew under the radar, with the game deciding third and fourth spot on the ladder. In the end it was Manchester that reigned supreme, claiming a hard-fought nine-goal win thanks to some crafty work from Joyce Mvula and Eleanor Cardwell inside the circle. Caroline O’Hanlon and Amy Carter were up to their usual tricks through the midcourt for the Thunder while Jade Clarke tried hard to keep the Rhinos in the hunt. But defensively the Rhinos were in all sorts of trouble with Tuaine Keenan and Vicki Oyesola racking up the penalties.

Photo credit: Ben Lumley Photography

VNSL 2021: Semi-finals wrap

THE 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague grand finalists have been decided with Loughborough Lightning and Team Bath winning their respective semi-finals clashes and progressing through to the big dance. There were plenty of great moments with two spectacular clashes providing plenty of heart in your mouth moments.

Loughborough Lightning (58) defeated Leeds Rhinos (38)

Player of the match: Sam May (Loughborough Lightning)

Leeds Rhinos have set the bar high this season, and while they did not get the job done against the top of the table Loughborough Lightning, they have plenty to be proud of. In their inaugural season and subsequently first finals series they showed plenty of grit and determination however it was always going to be a challenge without the services of Australian goal shooter Donnell Wallam who was granted compassionate leave to return down under after the passing of her grandmother. It was a comprehensive performance by the Lightning who despite a close opening term put the foot down piling on 18 goals to nine to claim the ascendancy. That momentum did not let up for the remainder of the game with the Lightning implementing some incredibly strong defence to stop the Rhinos in their tracks. The Rhinos failed to reach double-digits in the second, third or fourth term as the lead ballooned out to 20 goals. Uncharacteristic inaccuracy cost the Rhinos, missing 17 shots compared to five while the Lightning showcased their ability to win ball back racking up 12 intercepts to eight.

The midcourt work of Beth Cobden and Nat Panagarry was once again at its damaging best as the pair combined seamlessly to open up the space. Cobden was a real menace through the midcourt and around circle edge amassing two intercepts and three deflections. Player of the Match Sam May impressed in her second last game before retirement with the goal keeper proving to be an imposing force. She picked up two rebounds, five intercepts and four deflections in an all-round clinical performance. In attack the work of Mary Cholhok was on display as the Ugandan shooter nailed 39 goals from 42 attempts, and not playing out a chunk of the match. She partnered well with Ella Clark out in goal attack who slotted 19 goals of her own and only missed the one attempt for the whole game. For the Rhinos it was the shared efforts of Rhea Dixon and Sienna Rushton in the goal circle that was paramount nailing 13 and 25 goals respectively. Jade Clarke’s midcourt craft was on show once again as the veteran plied her trade picking up an intercept and three deflections while the defensive unit were forced to work in overdrive with Vicki Oyesola and Tuaine Keenan racking up the penalties.

Manchester Thunder (38) defeated by Team Bath (41)

Player of the match: Serena Guthrie (Team Bath)

After holding top of the table for majority of the season, Team Bath stumbled at the final hurdle to drop down the ladder standings. But that aside, they managed to rally against the reigning champs to pull off a hard-fought win that went right down to the wire. There was no shortage of twists and turns as Thunder started strong before Bath skipped out to a two-goal lead at quarter time and then managed to forge ahead in the second to create a handy three-goal buffer which turned into the eventual winning margin. The second half was an intense and tight battle as neither side could be separated with both outfits scoring nine goals in the third and 10 in the last, highlighting the defensive pressure out on court. Thunder missed seven attempts while Bath only missed the two which proved to be a major difference in the end result. Penalties also came back to bite the Thunder as they racked up 10 more than their opponents, 55-45.

Defensively, Team Bath are littered with options and players that are able to turn a game on its head and that is what Eboni Usoro-Brown and Layla Guscoth did; imposing themselves on the contest at every opportunity. Guscoth was costly with her 13 penalties but made up for it with two intercepts and three deflections. Joyce Mvula was nowhere near as dominant for Manchester finishing with 18 goals to her name thanks to Team Bath’s strong defensive pressure to stem her influence and force Eleanor Cardwell to do much of the heavy lifting. Cardwell outscored Mvula finishing with 20 goals from 24 attempts. Through the midcourt it was a one-woman show as Serena Guthrie gave fans plenty to cheer about with her tenacity on full display with two intercepts and two deflections, let alone her sheer athleticism. Kim Borger was the strike shooter for Team Bath posting 39 goals at 97 per cent while Sophie Drakeford-Lewis played a strong supplementary role with her nine goals.

 

Grand final preview:

Loughborough Lightning vs. Team Bath

The grand final is set to be a cracker between the two teams. With both Lightning and Bath coming off a short turn around it is going to come down to which team can last the longest and provide that run and gun for a whole 60 minutes. Team Bath are coming off a gruelling encounter with Manchester Thunder, forced to really grind out the game and push it home while the Lightning had somewhat of an easier game in their semi-final encounter. Looking at the history of the two teams this season and it is a checkered one to say the least with both teams notching up wins meaning the grand final is going to go down to the wire. While Lightning have the recent form to suggest a win, there is no doubt Bath’s consistency this season will assist in their pursuit for glory.

All eyes will turn to the midcourt battle between Guthrie and Panagarry with the centres lynchpins for their respective sides and are real driving forces in both attack and defence. Defensively Team Bath have more options with Usoro-Brown, Guscoth and Summer Artman able to hold ground down back plus the work of Imogen Allison out the front. But the Lightning cannot be underestimate with May wanting to leave a mark on the competition and the likes of Jasmin Odeogberin and Alice Harvey able to have an impact. Team Bath will need to shut down the speed and ease in which the Lightning can score if they are to win while Loughborough will be hoping to stifle the classy ball movement Team Bath are renowned for to claim the upper hand.

Photo credit: Ben Lumley

VNSL 2021: Semi-finals preview – Two huge semis to play as grand final looms on Sunday

THE Vitality Netball Superleague finals have arrived, with two huge matches setting up Sunday’s finals. First up is a battle between one and four, with the Loughborough Lightning and Leeds Rhinos going head-to-head, with the two versus three clash between Manchester Thunder and Team Bath following that.

Loughborough Lightning (1) v. Leeds Rhinos (4)

2021 results:

Round 4 – Lightning (70) defeated Rhinos (41)
Round 17/18 – Lightning (59) defeated Rhinos (51)

A huge battle is set between the Lightning and Rhinos, with one side in winning form and the other having spent a couple of weeks away from the courts with COVID-19 mandated restrictions. That being said, the Rhinos have been a big threat this season with a potent attacking end, hunt for the ball and willingness to contest hard, meaning they are a bit of a smoky here against the consistent Lightning. Both sides have plenty of upside and little flaws, making this matchup one to watch for sure. Lightning earned the minor premiership at the end of Round 20 and got the chocolates in both prior matchups this season, meaning they have the slight upper hand in this contest, but it is safe to say they should not underestimate the Rhinos, with the side stepping up well at every hurdle in the latter stages of the season.

A lot of this clash will come down to which side can take an early lead, with both sides boasting some huge gamechangers. Whilst there is no doubt the Rhinos have been a powerful team in the latter stage of the season, there’s a huge question mark over whether they have the tenacity, hunt and four quarter endurance to beat Loughborough Lightning without Donnell Wallam out on court in goal shooter. Rhea Dixon and Brittany Coleman boast plenty of exciting attributes in the goal circle, while Brie Grierson is another viable option who can rotate into the circle, however much of the side’s forward drive has come down to spotting Wallam at the post and propelling the high ball in. Coming up against the likes of Jas Odeogberin and Sam May, the Rhinos attack will certainly have plenty to think about especially with May’s impending retirement following the end of the season. Also bolstering that Lightning backline is Beth Cobden who has proved to be a livewire in wing defence throughout the season, while Nat Panagarry is a consistent performer out in centre, set to take on veteran Jade Clarke who will certainly match her for smarts and hunt on the ball. At the other end Mary Cholhok and Ella Clark have been hard to stop this season with Suzie Liverseidge providing an additional option to the post and consistently wreaking havoc out the front, meaning the likes of Paige Kindred and Tuaine Keenan will have their work cut out for them alongside tenacious micourter Fi Toner.

Tip: Lightning by 8.

Manchester Thunder (2) v. Team Bath (3)

2021 results:

Round 5/6 – Bath (60) defeated Thunder (35)
Round 13/14 – Bath (44) defeated Thunder (41)

Two teams coming off very different finishes to the season, there is no doubt this semi-final clash between Bath and Thunder will be a blockbuster. Both sides boast a wealth of talent across the court and plenty of versatility, however Bath have become a fraction predictable in the latter stages of the season while Manchester have continuously fired, creating a hugely even clash here. Whilst Manchester has the momentum coming into this final following a couple of confidence boosting wins to finish the season, Bath is on the back foot for the first time all season and it really showed in their last few matches. That being said, Bath got the better of Thunder both times they met earlier on in the season, and will not go down without a fight here after dropping the minor premiership this week.

Thunder’s defence in Kerry Almond and Emma Dovey has been on fire in recent weeks while Rebekah Airey has also been a formidable force in both wing defence and goal defence. Comparatively, Bath boasts its own hugely exciting defensive outfit with Layla Guscoth and Ebony Usoro-Brown not skipping a beat in each encounter this season. Expect an intriguing clash of speed, defensive nous and agility as Imogen Allison and Caroline O’Hanlon potentially go head to head, while Laura Malcolm and Amy Carter are also formidable forces who will look to split the midcourt and hunt for the turnover ball.The ever impressive Serena Guthrie can be hard to stop however, with her aerial ability and willingness to contest every ball continuously empowering her side, with her and Allison’s combined pressure allowing both Guscoth and Usoro-Brown to go out hunting. In the goal circles, it will be a battle of accuracy, volume and level-headedness, with both sides boasting huge talents to post. Thunder’s Joyce Mvula and Ellie Cardwell are two of the most consistent performers in the league, with an ability to share the load when required or take on the pressure themselves. Meanwhile, Kim Borger and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis are similarly as exciting to watch, with Drakeford-Lewis’ playmaking ability and skill from range providing a constant buffer for the defence.

Tip: Bath by 2.

 

Picture credit: Ben Lumley Photography

VNSL 2021: Round 20 – Monday wrap

THE final round of Vitality Netball Superleague action is done and dusted for the season, with two huge upsets completing the home-and-away season on a high. Whilst one matchup saw two sides playing out their final fixtures of the year without any finals in sight, the second saw top four positions at stake in a battle of two of the leading sides, with Loughborough Lightning taking out the win and the minor premiership in the process.

Surrey Storm (39) defeated Wasps Netball (35)

Player of the match: Felisitus Kwangwa (Surrey Storm)

Surrey Storm finished their season on the ultimate high, winning one last match for retiree Karyn Bailey, and in the process handing the Wasps their worst ever ladder finish. It was a huge performance from the Storm, who have struggled to find the offensive pressure this season, but had no issue firing in the final round limiting the Wasps in attack and finding ways around the mess at their own front-end. Despite quiet second and final terms, the work was done in the first for the side to have the half-time ascendancy (22-17) and hold onto that momentum to pile on the pressure during the third once more. Despite a 6-12 final term, the Storm proved far more fired up throughout the contest with nothing to lose, as their defensive end hummed and produced turnovers aplenty.

While the Storm racked up more penalties (15-7) and unforced errors (8-7), they made the most of their turnovers to apply offensive pressure, cleanly transitioning down court. It was a show-stopping performance from Zimbabwean Felisitus Kwangwa, who starred out in goal defence for a second straight match and piled on the pressure alongside Leah Middleton, with the likes of usually composed duo Katie Harris and Rachel Dunn appearing shellshocked by the hunt the defensive combination displayed. Gezelle Allison was also given a run out in goal attack, such was the pressure within the circle, while Storm’s Niamh Cooper and Mikki Austin provided great hands over pressure on the outer, blocking Leah Goss‘ vision on the feed. Amy Flanagan put in the hard yards for two of the Wasps’ three intercepts out in centre, while it was Yasmin Parsons who led the charge in the Storm front-end, threading the needle around reliable Wasps defenders Fran Williams and Josie Huckle, with the two collating two and one turnover apiece in a shaky day for the defensive unit. Bailey finished off her career with a 32-goal haul, ably assisted by Emma Magee (seven goals from nine attempts) in what was a full court effort from the Storm.

Loughborough Lightning (54) defeated by Team Bath (35)

Player of the match: Beth Cobden (Loughborough Lightning)

An outstanding four quarter effort from the Lightning told the tale of this clash, overcoming an uncharacteristically shaky Team Bath outfit to finish the season. With consistency, firepower and defensive pressure on show, the Lightning came out firing and did not relent throughout the entire matchup, and while Bath were by no means inaccurate, they struggled to find entries to the goal circle at all. The Lightning starred with their clean hands, and despite registering one more penalty (44-43), the side combined for just five unforced errors through the contest as their entire outfit hummed across the court, adding to their tally each quarter and dulling down the usually potent Bath attack. Whilst Bath trailed by just eight at the main change and had their chances, they struggled to return to their first quarter work rate, eventually going down by 19 goals.

Beth Cobden put on a masterclass in wing defence, dulling Rachel Shaw‘s spark and cutting off her every move to block easy access to the circle, finishing with nine deflections and three turnovers. It was a battle of Roses in centre as Serena Guthrie and Nat Panagarry went head-to-head, with both providing excellent defensive backup and neither really winning the battle, while Imogen Allison had her moments but also struggled to contain the speed and energy of Hannah Joseph who earned the upper hand to finish with two turnovers. Mary Cholhok continued on her merry way, in fine form all season and not slowing down here with 40 goals from 45 attempts, while Ella Clark (10 goals) and Suzie Liverseidge (four) had little issue getting on the board. Layla Guscoth was a shining light for Bath, picking off some crucial passes to finish with three turnovers alongside Guthrie, while both Eboni Usoro-Brown and Summer Artman took their turn in goal keeper, working to shut down Cholhok to no avail. At the other end, the usually reliable Kim Borger (15 goals from 18 attempts) was unable to have her usual impact credit to the defensive effort of fellow Australian Sam May and goal defence Jas Odeogberin, who well and truly shut down playmaker Sophie Drakeford-Lewis (eight goals), which in turn shook up the Bath attack unit, with Betsy Creak having a bit more success with 12 goals in goal shooter.

Picture credit: Ben Lumley Photography

VNSL 2021: Round 20 preview – Final round sees intriguing clashes emerge

VITALITY Netball Superleague (VNSL) Round 20 is here, and thus the end of the season has emerged with the closest campaign in recent years proving exciting and unexpected from start to finish. While the top four was prematurely decided following a positive COVID-19 case amongst the Leeds Rhinos playing group, the top three sides still have top spot to play for following unprecedented Round 19 results, whilst a quest for bragging rights remains for lower sides.

Round 19 ladder update: What is required from each top three side?

SUNDAY, JUNE 20

Saracens Mavericks v. Surrey Storm

With fifth, sixth and seventh positions still in contention, Mavericks need a win here to at least settle the score that they could have made finals if things played out differently this season. At the same time, the Storm have absolutely nothing to lose and have played out some big results over the past few rounds, making this one an intriguing clash to say the least. With some great developing players amongst the playing group the Storm will look to test the Mavericks, although the Mavericks’ newfound versatility and depth on the bench should pay off to put one last win in the book.

While Razia Quashie has already been ruled out of this matchup after suffering a potential Achilles injury last round, the Storm front-end does not have it any easier with both Jodie Gibson and Jo Trip forging a great connection throughout the season to really slam home the pressure and create exciting defensive moments. Both able to play a flashy game with their aerial leap or settle to a classic and physical one-on-one contest, Karyn Bailey and Emma Magee will have their work cut out for them against the Mavericks defensive duo. Through the midcourt expect plenty of speed from Yasmin Parsons with Gabby Marshall set the test of limiting the crafty wing attack, while two experienced heads in Mikki Austin and Sasha Corbin will go toe-to-toe. At the other end, the Mavericks boast a couple of viable options to post which allows them to avoid becoming too predictable, with Kadeen Corbin, Ine-Mari Venter and Britney Clarke all reliable and strong.

Manchester Thunder v. Strathclyde Sirens

Whilst neither team necessarily needs a win to complete their season given the Thunder has already secured a top three finish and the Sirens are out of the running for finals, it is safe to say this clash could be very interesting. Something worth keeping in mind is that the last time the Sirens and Thunder played, it was the opening weekend of VNSL action for the year. Whilst the Sirens went down by a hefty 17 goal margin in that encounter, the side had not yet found its footing in the competition meaning anything could happen here.

When it comes to this clash, there is no shortage of firepower. Expect a huge matchup between the two exciting Malawians, with Sirens goal keeper Towera Vinkhumbo one of the leading goal keepers in the competition and taking on compatriot Joyce Mvula – who is arguably one of the most consistent goalers in the league. But one of the big tests the Thunder front-end poses is the consistency of Thunder’s attack, with Ellie Cardwell able to both playmake and hand off the attempts to Mvula, or carry the load herself. This versatility could really shake the Sirens defence with Emily Nicholl and Taylor Cullen really needing to create a defensive buffer and deny the likes of Caroline O’Hanlon and Laura Malcolm pride of place on circle edge. Malcolm, O’Hanlon and Amy Carter will need to limit the speed in transition from Cullen and captain Gia Abernethy, while Beth Dix has been a livewire feeding into the circle, with Thunder’s Kerry Almond and Emma Dovey needing to put on the speed and creative flair to limit the impact of Emma BarrieBethan Goodwin and Niamh McCall to post.

Celtic Dragons v. Severn Stars

Expect a big clash here between the Dragons and Stars with both sides sitting on the lower end of the ladder, but the Dragons well within their chances to get a second win on the board and close out their season on a high. Whilst the Stars got the chocolates last time they met, the Dragons have produced some solid performances over the past few rounds and have somewhat found their form in the front-end which could challenge the Stars. Realistically, Stars should still take out this victory, although expect the Dragons to give them a run for their money.

The likes of Amy Clinton and Rebekah Robinson have been fairly consistent performers all season, usually lacking confident ball into the circle but proving relatively accurate to post when they do find the ball. It will be up to Shona O’Dwyer and Laura Rudland to confidently bypass the defensive effort from the likes of Iman ThomasLucy Herdman and Malysha Kelly, while Nia Jones and Kyra Jones play a vital role through the midcourt, transitioning well with their turn of speed. Dragons’ Clare Jones has played a crucial role back in wing defence for the Dragons, utilising her change of direction to create deflections, with the likes of Lucy Harris and playmaker Paige Reed both needing to apply some real offensive pressure to propel ball into Georgia Rowe and escape the long limbs of Dragons defenders Abigail Tyrrell and Annika Lee-Jones.

Tips: Mavericks by 12, Thunder by 8, Stars by 2

MONDAY, JUNE 21

Surrey Storm v. Wasps Netball 

A big matchup will wage between the 10th ranked Storm and sixth ranked Wasps to open Monday’s proceedings, not necessarily because of an expected result, but because the Storm will officially say goodbye to their attacking pillar Bailey, who announced her retirement during the week. The Australian goal shooter has been with the club since 2019, and played her first VNSL season at Mavericks the year prior, closing out a solid career in both Australia and the UK. Nevertheless, the Wasps were only pipped of a finals position this week, just like Mavericks and Sirens, meaning the side will be out hunting to get one last win on the board to prove what might have been.

For the Wasps, expect Fran Williams and Josie Huckle to pile on the pressure and not make life easy for Bailey and Magee at the post, while Lily-May Catling will need to be in tip-top form to disrupt the ease with which Parsons goes about her business. Iona Christian has really elevated her game this season alongside Amy Flanagan, so expect the duo to be a tough barricade through the centre and drive up the court with speed, with Niamh Cooper likely tasked with stopped Christian’s pinpoint passes into the circle. Defensively, Storm will hope to have the services of livewire Alima Priest back at their disposal, while without Priest, Felisitus Kwangwa and Leah Middleton will need to be switched on to force errors from the confident combination of Rachel Dunn and Katie Harris.

Loughborough Lightning v. Team Bath Netball

These two sides have not played since Round 1/2, making for an enticing clash given there is no more recent encounter that could play in with their respective form. Both sides come into this matchup off the back of unprecedented Round 19 losses, opening up a real question of which side has the intent and ability to bounce back well here. Both renowned for their ability to play a full court defence and shut down attacking forays, both Lightning and Bath will have their work cut out for them, with the side that is quickest to play its own game most likely to command control throughout and claim the points.

As is often the case between two similarly strengthened teams, the winner of this match will be the side which controls the centre third. Whilst Team Bath boasts

 in the centre and Jess Shaw and Imogen Allison on either wing, the Lightning can match them for defensive intent credit to the workrate of Nat PanagarryBeth Cobden and Hannah Joseph. Both sides have another viable wing attack each who can slip into the position to have an impact, while in the attacking neither side has a real hole in their offence with Lightning boasting Mary Cholhok, Ella Clark and Suzie Liverseidge, while Bath’s combination of Kim Borger and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis is backed up by an in-form Betsy Creak. Defensively, Sam May and Jas Odeogberin will have their work cut out for them against the Bath versatility, while Bath’s own backline in Layla Guscoth and Eboni Usoro-Brown is also hugely influential.

Tips: Wasps by 15, Bath by 3

VNSL 2021: Round 19 – Sunday wrap

THE penultimate round of Vitality Netball Superleague action is almost done and dusted, with three huge Sunday afternoon clashes playing out rather than the scheduled four due to the Surrey Storm and Wasps Netball clash being postponed following a positive COVID-19 case amongst the Wasps playing group. That match is set to be rescheduled in due time.

Strathclyde Sirens (53) defeated Celtic Dragons (34)

Player of the match: Gia Abernethy (Strathclyde Sirens)

The Strathclyde Sirens got a crucial Round 19 win on the board to take them another step closer to finals content, downing Celtic Dragons by 19-goals in a comprehensive effort. A consistent barrage was required by the Sirens to come away with the points in this clash, and consistent is what they got, adding to their tally each quarter throughout to leave the Dragons behind. Despite improved defensive efforts from the Dragons, the side struggled to hit the scoreboard in the first half, putting up just four goals in the first and trailing 24-11 at the main break. A huge 17-11 third term from the Sirens all but secured victory, as the side rolled out the subs to give developing talent a chance to showcase their wares.

Abigail Tyrell and Annika Lee-Jones had an excellent start, piling on the defensive pressure from the get-go to deny easy chances at goal for Sirens goal shooter Emma Barrie with the tall timber lacking her usual impact to the post finishing with just nine goals. The two Dragons defenders combined for six turnovers and 10 deflections with their high work rate paying off throughout the contest, although the agile movement of Niamh McCall (29 goals from 37 attempts) and Bethan Goodwin (15 from 16) appeared to do the trick as the Sirens took control. Player of the match and Sirens captain Gia Abernethy was hard to stop through the centre, throwing herself at everything to pile on four intercepts and allow Beth Dix to fire on all cylinders in wing attack. The combination of Towera Vinkhumbo and Emily Nicholl continues to shine, as the duo combined for seven intercepts, three deflections and 10 turnovers, while Taylor Cullen was a workhorse shutting down Laura Rudland. Despite their struggles getting ball into the circle, Amy Clinton (20 from 24) and Rebekah Robinson (12 from 13) were on song when they were within range. Clare Jones and Shona O’Dwyer continue to showcase their defensive nous in the midcourt, combining for two of the Dragons’ three intercepts, with the last snatched by Robinson out in goal attack.

Team Bath (35) defeated by Saracens Mavericks (46)

Player of the match: Ine-Mari Venter (Saracens Mavericks)

Just when Team Bath have been looking unbeatable, the Mavericks have come along once more to knock the ladder-leaders down a peg with a critical win. Whilst many may have expected their first clash victory to be a fluke, the Mavericks well and truly proved what they are capable of with a huge 11-goal victory over Bath to put them in a good position to steal that last remaining finals position. It took a hot start from the Mavs to secure the win, rendering Bath to just 13 goals in the first half to Mavericks’ 23, and firing on all cylinders from thereon out to ensure they did not allow the fired up Bath side to steal momentum. Whilst Bath executed a much more typical second half, the Mavs did not lose a quarter throughout to showcase just how good they can be.

It was a masterclass across the court for the Mavericks, who came out with a point to prove against the ladder-leaders. Ine-Mari Venter may not have had the court time in recent starts but was unstoppable combining with Kadeen Corbin, with the South African plying her trade effectively to finish with 31 goals and prove she was up to the physicality that Eboni Usoro-Brown and Layla Guscoth were bringing. Corbin shot 15 straight in a classy effort, utilising her footwork and connection with sister Sasha and Beth Ecuyer-Dale to really shake off the defensive pressure from Guscoth, Imogen Allison and Serena Guthrie. Bath speedster Rachel Shaw was well nullified by the ever-smothering Gabby Marshall, whose influence allowed Jodie Gibson and Razia Quashie to fire on all cylinders, with Jo Trip‘s impact also noted. Defensively, Quashie, Gibson and Marshall accounted for six of the side’s eight intercepts with Quashie also creating eight deflections, rendering the usually clean and composed combination of Kim Borger (15 goals from 18 attempts) and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis (one goal) to messiness, as Betsy Creak entered the action to pile on 19 goals to the side’s final tally. Guscoth and Guthrie were the only players to register intercepts for Bath, with the usually clinical defensive unit outplayed on this occasion.

London Pulse (42) defeated Severn Stars (40)

Player of the match: Funmi Fadoju (London Pulse)

The London Pulse secured another win to jump up the leaderboard a fraction more, gaining more separation from the Stars in the process with a critical two-goal victory. Whilst not able to make finals, both sides came out hunting for an elusive win and it was the Pulse that managed to execute their fifth for the season, and second straight showcasing their improved form as the season has continued. Whilst the Stars competed well throughout, winning the third term to go into the final quarter on 30 goals apiece, Pulse marginally pipped them at the post going the extra mile under pressure to claim the 42-40 final result.

Pulse’s improved backline continues to impress week on week, with young gun Funmi Fadoju stepping up once more to control proceedings. While she received plenty of whistle – with Fadoju and goal keeper Lindsay Keable combining for 40 – she was a livewire in every sense of the word, able to transition smoothly between attacking the ball and hands outside the circle to having a huge impact inside too, creating five turnovers for her side off the back of 10 deflections and an intercept. That being said, the consistent effort from Georgia Rowe (33 goals from 34 attempts) and Paige Reed (seven goals straight) paid off with the duo combining well and missing just one goal between them. The back trio of Iman ThomasLucy Herdman and Malysha Kelly worked hard to combat easy feeds into Pulse’s Sigi Burger, who finished with 29 goals to go with fellow South African Lefebre Rademan‘s 13, with Thomas racking up four intercepts to lead all comers. The battle between Kyra Jones and Ashleigh Dekker was immense, while Nia Jones put in the hard yards to limit Adean Thomas space to feed into the circle.

Picture credit: Ben Lumley Photography

VNSL 2021: Round 19 preview – Penultimate round sees do-or-die clashes

A HUGE penultimate round of Vitality Netball Superleague action is upon us, with one side in Wasps potentially taking the court for the final time this season as Leeds Rhinos earn the week off and the remaining nine sides go head-to-head, with London Pulse and Saracens Mavericks both taking the court twice.

SUNDAY, JUNE 13

Surrey Storm v. Wasps Netball 

Expect a huge clash between the Storm and the Wasps, with this matchup the Wasps’ final encounter for the home and away season and their last chance of securing enough points to make the finals series. While they are still more than capable of making finals they will really want to put the foot down against the Storm who have been showing some real fighting spirit over the last few rounds and will want to do anything in their power to stop the Wasps from achieving that last finals position.

The real test in this one will be whether Surrey Storm’s developing attack-line can defeat the tough buffer of the Wasps defensive combination in Josie Huckle and Fran Williams. While Karyn Bailey is capable of holding down the goal circle on her own she will need consistent assistance from Emma Magee in goal attack and hard drives from Yasmin Parsons and Mikki Austin to ensure she puts up a sufficient scoreline. Young defender Alima Priest has really come to the fore in the last couple of weeks alongside Leah Middleton although the duo will have their work cut out for them taking on experienced combination Rachel Dunn and Katie Harris, especially given the exciting form of Amy Flanagan and Iona Christian and the viable impact option of Gezelle Allison and injection of Lily-May Catling over the past few rounds.

Strathclyde Sirens v. Celtic Dragons 

Like the Wasps, the Sirens really need a win this weekend and they should achieve that with relative ease over Celtic Dragons. While the Dragons have actually shown some really great intent and hunt for the ball over the past six or so round in particular, the Sirens have a real pep in their step this season after a few seasons towards the bottom end the ladder and will really want to prove that their season has been enough to allow them a chance at finals, especially given their consistency throughout. 

The Sirens have undoubtedly been one one of the most improved teams this season and that is down to their exciting circle combinations. The attack has benefited from a rotating circle with Emma Barrie, Bethan Goodwin and Niamh McCall combining, which will be the real test for the Dragons with Annika Lee-Jones and Abigail Tyrell sure to have their work cut out for them. At the other end Amy Clinton and Rebekah Robinson are capable of turning on the excitement factor for the Dragons, however they will have a really tough time coming up against Towera Vinkhumbo in goalkeeper, especially considering the extra ball-winning ability of Emily Nicholl and Taylor Cullen out the front, and the drive down court from captain Gia Abernethy.

Team Bath Netball v. Saracens Mavericks 

This could be a do-or-die clash as the Mavericks take on Team Bath, although they do actually come in holding the mantle over Bath as the only side to have defeated the ladder-leading team all season. That being said. Bath certainly did not give the Mavericks the credit they deserved last time they met and are sure to come out firing this time around. The Mavericks have looked switched on over the past few rounds though so do not underestimate the side which is still potentially in with a chance of making finals.

It is safe to say that Serena Guthrie will be the barometer in this matchup with Sasha Corbin and Gabby Marshall having their work cut out for them, although the midcourt duo will be bolstered by a huge defensive line with Jodie Gibson, Razia Quashie and Jo Trip all more than capable of holding their own defensively. At the other end it is safe to say the defensive combination of Imogen Allison, Layla Guscoth and Eboni Usoro-Brown is hard to stop, with each individual a workhorse driving the ball down and combining seamlessly week on week. While the defensive matchup is fairly even, the difference here will likely come down to the goal circle units of both sides with Bath’s tried-and-true combination of Sophie Drakeford-Lewis and Kim Borger sure to set the court alight.

London Pulse v. Severn Stars

Expect an intriguing clash between London Pulse and Severn Stars given the shaky season that both teams have had this year. While Stars have had moments of brilliance they have been unable to convert that into consistent four quarter efforts, however it is also safe to say that Pulse have also really missed the mark this year and have struggled to keep up with the teams above them on the ladder. While the Stars are sure to bring the heat, the Pulse are on a roll and will want to ensure that continues as they wrap up their season and try to get a couple more wins on the board.

Both the Stars and Pulse have been showcasing some great upcoming talent with the likes of Paige Reed and Georgia Rowe consistently standing up for the Stars. The experience of Kyra Jones and Liana Leota has consistently stood up while Nia Jones has showcased her plentiful tricks of the trade heading up a young looking back line. In the absence of Halimat Adio, Pulse has had a real chance to showcase the explosiveness of their own defensive line, with Zara Everitt and Funmi Fadoju standing up alongside Lindsay Keable, and even young gun Peace Akinyemi finding her way onto the court last round. The real difference in this match will be the Pulse’s front-end firepower, with Sigi Burger a huge target in the goal circle while Lefebre Rademan and Kira Rothwell work hard out the front to provide an edge. 

Tip: Wasps by 8, Sirens by 15, Bath by 6, Pulse by 3

MONDAY, JUNE 14

London Pulse v. Saracens Mavericks

 Kicking off Monday’s matches is another big match between Pulse and Mavericks as the two sides shape up for their second matches of the round. The Mavericks will be either brimming with confidence or on shaky legs following a huge matchup with Bath, while the Pulse will want to do everything in their power to limit the Mavs of an extra win which could bump them into finals contention. Realistically, the Mavericks need this win here regardless of whether they get the win over Bath to even have a small sniff of making the postseason series.

The Mavericks will want to ensure they use the strength and evasive speed of Britney Clark in the circle in this match with the goal shooter an excellent target and creating a really versatile goal circle alongside Kadeen Corbin and Ine-Mari Venter. While Burger has been a consistent threat for the Pulse, the elevated form of Olivia Tchine has paid off in spades with the goal shooter proving she is more than capable of holding her own in the circle and offering a great impact option. Both sides match up defensively very well with livewires at either end, who are able to spark action with just one aerial leap. It is safe to say Fadoju and Quashie are sure to provide some exciting elements to the big matchup, with plenty of creative flair set to be on show, while Adean Thomas is another excellent feeder who will want to utilise her class and delivery.

Loughborough Lightning v. Manchester Thunder

The final match of the round is a battle between two and three – ultimately one of the most tantalising matches of the entire round. Lightning sit in second with just two losses on the board for the season while Manchester has three losses and sit on a just as comfortable winning streak as the Lightning do. Neither side has a weak spot and both have plenty to prove as they look to showcase just how powerful they are, especially given they could be a finals clash waiting to happen. 

There are a number of hugely important matchups in this match with the midpoint of both sides really coming to the forefront when thinking of where the match will be won and lost. The Thunder boast the likes of Laura Malcolm, Amy Carter and Caroline O’Hanlon through the centre, while there is no doubt that they are matched up on very well by Nat Panagarry, Beth Cobden and the likes of Hannah Joseph and Hannah Williams. Defensively, Lightning’s combination of Annabel Roddy, Jas Odeogberin and Sam May will look to make life hard for Joyce Mvula and Ellie Cardwell while the other end expect a huge one-on-one between Mary Cholhok and Kerry Almond as Emma Dovey looks to shut down the easy delivery from Ella Clark. Expect neither side to give an inch throughout a huge contest, with the real proof in the pudding likely coming down to that midcourt and the adaptability of each side.

Tip: Mavericks by 9, Lightning by 2

Picture credit: Ben Lumley Photography

VNSL 2021: Round 17/18 – Friday/Saturday wrap

IT was a blockbuster start to the double round of Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) action with matches played in front of a crowd for the first time this season. The Friday and Saturday games gave fans plenty to cheer about as Team Bath and Loughborough Lightning continued their winning ways.

Celtic Dragons (30) defeated by London Pulse (51)

Player of the match: Lefebre Rademan (London Pulse)

It was a relatively low scoring match but in the end it was London Pulse that got the job done against the lowly Celtic Dragons. Pulse led from start to finish and steadily added to their margin throughout the game. London were not afraid to ring in the changes to keep the Dragons on their toes and guessing what was going to be thrown their way next.

South African goal attack, Lefebre Rademan plied her trade effectively for the Pulse earning Player of the Match honours for her efforts out on court. A crafty player with ball in hand, Rademan created a wealth of attacking forays while also impressing under the post. She adapted on the fly playing with both Sigi Burger and Olivia Tchine while the ever-changing midcourt combination of Kira Rothwell and Adean Thomas was exciting to watch. Funmi Fadoju was her consistent self, applying strong hands over pressure and hunting for any loose ball such is her tenacious nature. Peace Akinyemi made her debut for the Pulse with the defender showcasing her array of talents to congest the attacking third. For the Dragons, Amy Clinton and Rebekah Robinson worked tirelessly in the goal circle while Annika Lee-Jones used her long limbs to apply pressure on the Pulse goalers.

Severn Stars (32) defeated by Team Bath (45)

Player of the match: Kim Borger (Team Bath)

Team Bath just go from strength to strength and this game was no different. Although the Stars pushed them throughout the contest, Bath stuck to their structures to keep finding ways to score and keep the Stars on the back foot. The Stars did work gallantly both in defence and attack to cause headaches for Bath who did not have everything their own way, but in the end the top team could not be beaten.

Serena Guthrie pulled out the party tricks once again with the Team Bath centre using every ounce of her athleticism and class to keep the ball in play and dish it off to none other than Kim Borger under the post. Borger was a rock under the post, holding her own against Lucy Herdman and Iman Thomas to out-position her opponent time and time again. Her connection with Sophie Drakeford-Lewis was another crucial element in the sides win as the duo used their quick hands and fancy footwork  to exploit their opponents in the circle. Liana Leota had her work cut out for her against Imogen Allison with the wing defence renowned for her physicality and ability to contest each and every pass. Tash Pavelin got the nod in goal defence to start the game and made the most of her chances with her defensive pressure well and truly coming to the fore.

Loughborough Lightning (59) defeated Celtic Dragons (35)

Player of the match: Suzie Liverseidge (Loughborough Lightning)

Unfortunately it did not get any better for the Dragons as they came up against the second placed Loughborough Lightning who made light work of them. The Lightning are a well-oiled unit and this performance was no different as they capitalised on their opportunities and suffocated the Dragons in attack. By half time the Lightning had established a commanding 19-goal lead and did not look like relenting, such was their pressure across the court and desperation to collect another win as they ran out 24-goal victors.

Making her debut Jess Haynes made an immediate name for herself with the defender impressing with her ability to read the play and go out hunting for the Lightning. It was a strong performance from Suzie Liverseidge as the goal attack nailed 16 goals at 94 per cent playing a strong role alongside Ugandan goal shooter Mary Cholhok as the two rotated the circle with great ease. Lee-Jones and Abigail Tyrrell had a tough time competing in the goal circle while Clare Jones worked hard to shut down the likes of Nat Panagarry through the midcourt. Beth Cobden continued on her merry way out in wing defence with her ball-tracking abilities and hunt to stop the ball in its track and propel it back down the court.

Manchester Thunder (55) defeated Severn Stars (43)

Player of the match: Caroline O’Hanlon (Manchester Thunder)

Manchester Thunder racked up another win as the Severn Stars fell to their second loss for the round. The Thunder snuck out to a lead early and controlled the flow of play with their key cogs in each third dictating the tempo. Severn Stars struggled to combat Manchester despite their copious changes with the class of the Thunder coming through. The win was a monumental one to say the least as the Thunder secured a spot in the semi-finals with the reigning champs able to contest for another title next month.

Paige Reed and Georgia Rowe were back at it in this clash as the two worked in overdrive in the goal circle to create space and inch closer to the post. Rowe was a commanding pillar under the ring but the tried and tested Thunder combination of Emma Dovey and Kerry Almond were up to the challenge as the defensive duo implemented some strong hands over pressure. Joyce Mvula was at her damaging best in attack for the Thunder with her clever body positioning and accuracy to post while partner in crime Eleanor Cardwell chimed in both on the scoreboard and out the front to dish off pinpoint passes to the goal shooter. The Stars were forced to defend for long periods of time with Adi Bolakoro using her fancy footwork to confuse the space while wing defence Nia Jones plied her trade out the front to limit the influence of Caroline O’Hanlon. But it was to no real avail as the wing attack seemed to have the ball on a string for large patches of the game.

Strathclyde Sirens (37) defeated by Team Bath (48)

Player of the match: Rachel Shaw (Team Bath)

Team Bath made it two from two downing Strathclyde Sirens in convincing fashion. It was all one–way traffic once Bath got going using their silky connections down court to bypass the Sirens and pile on the scoreboard pressure. Holding onto top spot Bath proved why they are competition favourites to ride the wave and deliver under pressure to shut down the Sirens attacking forays and cause disruption in attack. This win marks Team Bath’s ninth victory on the trot showcasing their overall dominance on the competition as their superstars continue to find a way to drag their side to wins.

There was no shortage of star performances from Team Bath as Layla Guscoth showcased her defensive nous to pickpocket passes and use her closing speed to wreak havoc while fellow defender Eboni Usoro-Brown also impressed with her body work against Emma Barrie. The battle between Guthrie and Gia Abernethy in the midcourt was tantalising with neither player willing to take a backwards step as Taylor Cullen fought hard to reduce the impact of Rachel Shaw around circle edge. Shaw had a game to remember with the wing attack finding the top of the circle with edge and releasing pinpoint passes into the circle with great ease, finding Borger and Drakeford-Lewis continuously.

Photo credit: Ben Lumley

VNSL 2021: Round 17/18 preview – Crowds return as last double round arrives

CROWDS return to the Vitality Netball Superleague for the first time this season in a blockbuster double round of action, as the ladder continues to heat up with just one spot within the top four still up for grabs. There is no doubt plenty to play for this round, with home fans expected in droves and hoping to sway the results their way. With 10 matches playing out across the final double round of netball for the season, expect plenty of excitement across the court.

FRIDAY, MAY 28

Celtic Dragons v. London Pulse

An intriguing battle with wage between the Dragons and Pulse with both sides sitting at the bottom end of the ladder but showing some promising signs towards the latter stages of the season. Whilst the Dragons have only won one match this season, they have a real chance here against the Pulse who certainly have not hit the heights expected of them this year, especially in front of a home crowd. That being said, the Pulse still boast some hugely influential players who can turn the tides of a match with ease, and should still have the class to get their fourth win on the board for the season this week.

For the Dragons, the attacking combination of Amy Clinton and Rebekah Robinson has really stood up in recent weeks, not only with their willingness to go to post, but also convert from range. That being said, Pulse’s defensive unit has not taken a backwards step since losing Halimat Adio and have tightened up immensely in her absence, as Funmi Fadoju continues to star rotating through wing defence and goal defence, aided by Lindsay Keable and Zara Everitt and looking to really test the Dragons front-end. Expect an intriguing contest at the opposite end as Annika Lee-Jones takes on the Pulse front-line, with Olivia Tchine showcasing some great form in Sigi Burger‘s absence, while both Lefebre Rademan and Kira Rothwell have been playing a significant role out the front.

Severn Stars v. Team Bath

Team Bath has not skipped a beat this season, and this round should be no different as they take on the Stars. While the Stars have had patches of form and boast some exciting players, Bath has no shortage of class or depth and most importantly, has remained consistent throughout the entire season. Whilst Bath has already more than secured its finals position, the side will want to win the remainder of its matches as Lightning is gaining on them. Stars will want to put out a consistent four quarter effort here to get in the head of Bath.

While there are some intriguing battles across the court, one to watch is New Zealand veteran Liana Leota taking on Bath livewire Imogen Allison, with both players known for not giving an inch. Leota has been finding Paige Reed and Georgia Rowe inside the circle with ease, although the two goalers will have their work cut out for them against Roses duo Layla Guscoth and Eboni Usoro-Brown. The real test for the Stars will be in stopping the tried and true combination of Kim Borger and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, with the two goalers rarely stopped to post, especially given the speed in transition down court from Serena Guthrie which does not allow defensive units to set up. The Stars have struggled with finding a consistent duo to man the goal circle each round, instead relying on a rolling selection to catch attackers off guard.

Tip: Pulse by 9, Bath by 17

SATURDAY, MAY 29

Loughborough Lightning v. Celtic Dragons

The Dragons have a much bigger test ahead of them when they face the Lightning, who are on the hunt for every single win they can get as they chase down Team Bath in top spot. In a battle between second and last on the table, this matchup looms as a fairly simple task for the Lightning, and while Dragons have shown some real intent and improved form, it is unlikely they will be able to get the chocolates here with so little winning experience in comparison.

Lightning’s front-end has fired on all cylinders all season, and is unlikely to let up any time soon with the like of Mary Cholhok continuing to star out the front. Ella Clark continues to play a significant assisting role, as does Suzie Liverseidge, while the Dragons’ midcourt will really have to kick up a gear in this encounter given the impact Beth CobdenNat Panagarry and Hannah Joseph can have. It will be up to Laura RudlandShona O’Dwyer and Clare Jones to make it hard for the Lightning mids to find circle edge, and take off some of the pressure off Lee-Jones and Abigail Tyrell. Defensively, Lightning’s Alice Harvey, Sam May and Jas Odeogberin will look to make life hard for Clinton and Robinson and render the duo inaccurate.

Manchester Thunder v. Severn Stars

Expect Thunder to leave no stone unturned in this matchup, as they look to keep pressing their agenda within the top four, while the Stars have laboured away toward the bottom end of the ladder for majority of the season. They are just one win behind Lightning and will be doing everything in their power to take the Lightning out of second on the ladder, and this matchup with the Stars should go a long way for the Thunder in their chances of doing just that.

Thunder have star players punctuating each third of the court, with the combination between Ellie Cardwell and Joyce Mvula one of the most influential in the competition, and certainly piling a heap of pressure onto the defensive unit of the Stars, with Lucy HerdmanAdi BolakoroMalysha Kelly and Iman Thomas all viable options to slot in the back-end. While all four players provide a different element to the defensive unit, Cardwell and Mvula are highly versatile players who flourish under pressure, so will need to be stopped from the get-go if the Stars are of any chance  of giving Thunder a scare. Stars’ returnee Kyra Jones will look to have an impact if required, while Jane Taylor is a viable option to slot into goal attack if the likes of Kerry Almond and Emma Dovey can get inside the head of Reed and Rowe.

Strathclyde Sirens v. Team Bath

Expect another huge matchup here, not only in terms of talent but also in terms of form and ladder positioning. While Bath have certainly been one of the benchmark sides in the competition this season, the Sirens are on the verge of their first ever VNSL finals foray and will not go down without a fight. The Sirens realistically need to win all four of their remaining matches to make it there, and while it will be hard, they are not out of the race yet. That being said, Bath have been in scintillating form and will not want to relent to the up and coming Sirens.

Bath’s defensive approach to the game will be their weapon in this matchup, as the back unit of Guscoth, Usoro-Brown and Allison – and to an extent Guthrie and Tash Pavelin – work to keep the likes of Emma BarrieNiamh McCall and Bethan Goodwin quiet to post. All three goalers have proven more than capable of piling on offensive pressure from range, while Gia Abernethy and Beth Dix‘s precise passes into the circle have been crucial. At the other end, the Sirens’ backend in Towera VinkhumboEmily Nicholl and Taylor Cullen will look to really shut down the efficient movement of Borger and Drakeford-Lewis, as well as the ability for the likes of Rachel or Jess Shaw to find circle edge.

Tip: Lightning by 18, Thunder by 16, Bath by 6

SUNDAY, MAY 30

Loughborough Lightning v. Leeds Rhinos

This matchup is a crucial one for both Lightning and Rhinos, with the hosts still on the hunt for top spot, though Rhinos have had an excellent second half to the season and are more than capable of stealing the last position in the final four. Last time these sides met the Rhinos still had significant injuries plaguing them, with that match nowhere near an indicator of the blockbuster this matchup should be. While Lightning will have the home crowd behind them and the consistency to take out this one, the Rhinos are charging for a spot in the finals and will not go down easy.

Cholhok will look to be her usual impactful self for the Lightning, although she should be well attended to by the likes of Rhinos defenders Tuaine Keenan and Vicki Oyesola who are unafraid of a bit of physicality, so will look to really get in Cholhok’s head. Expect star-studded matchups across the court with Jade Clarke expected to go head-to-head with Panagarry, while Brie Grierson has been in great form out the front for Rhinos and takes on Cobden in a huge test. The real test for Lightning will be limiting the huge impact of Donnell Wallam at the post, with no prior experience against the Australian goal shooter. Whilst the defensive unit has had plenty of time to practice on Cholhok, Wallam has a very different take on the position and in turn provides a difficult task, especially if Rhea Dixon is firing out in goal attack.

Saracens Mavericks v. Strathclyde Sirens

Expect a hard fought battle between the Mavericks and Sirens, as they go head to head in what could be a do-or-die battle when it comes to finals chances. Sitting in seventh and sixth heading into this round, there is plenty on the line with their last encounter finishing in a draw showcasing just how tight the matchup should be this time around. Both sides have everything to lose and plenty of gamechangers across the court even despite a couple of injuries that could throw a spanner in the works, making for a huge battle and what could be one of the matches of the round.

For the Mavericks, Jodie Gibson has really stepped up over the last few rounds, especially in the absence of Razia Quashie. Her combination with Stephanie Collard and Jo Trip continues to test opposition sides, something that will be critical when they face Barrie and McCall at the post, with McCall in particular very adept from range. Gibson’s newfound versatility speaks a lot for the form of the team though, with many players able to adjust accordingly, as Gabby MarshallGeorgia Lees and Sasha Corbin look to command the midcourt, lining up fairly well against Abernethy, Dix and Cullen. Expect the real test for the Mavericks to be in their attack, with the circle not quite gelling consistently and seeing regular changes across Ine-Mari VenterBritney Clarke and Kadeen Corbin, which could let in chances for Vinkhumbo to fly for intercepts amongst the confusion.

Manchester Thunder v. Surrey Storm

Whilst this match should go the way of the Manchester Thunder, it could also bump them into second on the ladder dependant on the Lightning versus Rhinos matchup earlier in the day, making this contest all the more important. In comparison, the Storm have struggled to string consecutive performances together this season and will have their work cut out for them this round with Thunder’s class and composure with ball in hand presenting a real test for the 10th ranked side.

The Storm will really look to their experienced heads in this matchup, with Karyn Bailey and Mikki Austin required to step up across the court. They will also hope to have another Australian in Leah Middleton back to add another layer to their defence, with Thunder’s combination of Mvula and Cardwell sure to cause a heap of issues down back for the Storm. Alima Priest has stepped up in recent rounds, as did Felisitus Kwangwa in Round 16 with Middleton unavailable, while Niamh Cooper will want to really stand up against the highly experienced Caroline O’Hanlon, who has pushed forward with Amy Carter standing strong in centre and Laura Malcolm wreaking havoc from wing defence, and Rebekah Airey also a viable option rotating between wing and goal defence. What makes the midcourt unit so influential is their ability to change up roles and still provide an impact, making this section of the court the real test for the Storm.

Tip: Lightning by 1, Sirens by 3, Thunder by 10

MONDAY, MAY 31

Leeds Rhinos v. Surrey Storm

The Rhinos will look to really cement their finals chances in this matchup with the Storm, with the two sides only separated by five positions on the ladder but realistically on opposite ends in terms of form. Rhinos went through a rough patch but have become a really threatening side with their ability to score quickly and efficiently, whilst the Storm are also a solid attacking side, but have failed to hold up defensively to really test offensive-minded sides. Expect the Rhinos to come away with this one fairly convincingly, although the Storm will be hoping to test them across the court.

Rhinos will want to back up with another win here, especially against the Storm who have struggled to put consistent performances together. Both sides boast tall-timbered Australians to post as well as players with plenty of flair. Expect Dixon and Wallam to be up to their usual tricks out the front, while Sienna Rushton has proved to be more than capable of stepping up where required. No doubt Priest will look to continue her exciting run of form down back, pairing well with both Kwangwa and Middleton to find plenty of turnover ball. Emily Hollingworth will likely be tasked with shutting down the likes of Yasmin Parsons or Austin, while Bailey will command attention at the other end of the court and looks to hold strong in goal shooter for the Storm, able to combine well with any rotation of Emma Magee or Frankie Wells, with both goal attacks able to slot in fairly easily.

Saracens Mavericks v. Wasps Netball

This is the Wasps penultimate match for the season and one of their last chances to make a stand for their position on the ladder, meaning this is ultimately another do-or-die encounter with the Mavs realistically needing a win here too to remain in the hunt. The two sides have already played out a close-fought and low-scoring battle this season proving just how strong they both are defensively, and they match up very well across the court. the Mavs will be hoping they can go on a run here to finish off, while Wasps will hope they can make use of the Mavericks’ fatigue coming in off the back of another game.

The Wasps have really missed the leadership of Sophia Candappa out the front, however the form of Iona Christian is paying off in spades with the midcourter pushing forward a lot more and looking to really challenge Marshall with the duo fairly well matched for speed and intensity. Meanwhile, Amy Flanagan and Lily-May Catling also line up fairly well against the Mavs, although the challenge will be whether their transitional play down court converts to goals with Katie HarrisRachel Dunn and Gezelle Allison sure to be well held by the versatile Mavericks defensive unit. At the other end, Josie Huckle and Fran Williams will look to really bring the heat against the Mavericks’ attack, with Catling’s reach outside the circle sure to test the Mavs’ ability to finding easy avenues to goal.

Tip: Rhinos by 15, Wasps by 3

Picture credit: Morgan Harlow