This year’s Super Netball grand final will be memorable for many reasons.
The occasion happens to be the 300th match of the competition, contested for the first time between both NSW teams — the Giants and the Swifts.
Even though it will be played in Brisbane, almost 1,000km from Sydney’s Olympic Park, the anticipation of the derby has been a welcome distraction for Swifts and Giants fans, currently stuck in lockdown due to the pandemic.
Beyond player rivalry, there is also an exciting narrative involving both coaches, with the game marking almost 20 years to the day that Briony Akle and Julie Fitzgerald combined forces to lift the Sydney Swifts’ maiden national netball league trophy.
Back then, when the club wore yellow and blue, Akle was carving up the midcourt and Fitzgerald was the side’s mastermind head coach.
Now the two face off in the 2021 grand final, with a chance to write separate achievements in the history books.
Meanwhile, new Netball Australia chief executive Kelly Ryan will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief when the final whistle is blown, knowing the sport has delivered the most difficult season of Super Netball yet in her first year at the helm.
Although 2020 was tough — with a delayed start and the entire competition played in a Queensland hub — it pales in comparison to the horror show that has been 2021.
The league got through four rounds this year unscathed, until an endless list of COVID-19 outbreaks and border closures threatened to derail the competition.
After months of last-minute dashes interstate, endless stints in quarantine, hour-by-hour contact with government officials, and serious concerns for player welfare, you’d hope those responsible for keeping Super Netball running can sit back and just enjoy the game.
Not to mention navigating all these challenges on the smell of an oily rag, with tighter purse strings and less government exemptions than the male sporting codes in this country.
For the Swifts and Giants, the arduous year has been worth it. Now all that’s left to do is take control of their destiny, with 60 minutes of netball to play.
The Swifts hunt their second title in three years
The NSW Swifts were the first team into the grand final after holding their nerve to beat the Giants in a nail-biting semi-final clash, 62-61.
With last week off, the side took the least stressful route to the decider, with more time to plot their challenge for a second trophy in just three years.
To have made it this far, is a real tribute to the way head coach Akle and assistant Bec Bulley have held it together amongst the chaos.
Both women have sacrificed so much as mothers, splitting up from their families and for some of the season, bringing their young children along for the ride.
The Swifts were even forced to play their round 12 match against the Collingwood Magpies without a head coach after Akle came in contact with a COVID-19 exposure site and got stuck isolating in Adelaide as the side left for Queensland.
The team started the season a little slow, and mixed results meant they remained towards the top of the table while struggling to reach their full potential and lock down a starting seven.
But in round nine they really arrived, beating the previously undefeated West Coast Fever by a single goal and sorting out their midcourt combinations.
The team is definitely more experienced, considering eight of the 10 players won the title in 2019.
While their possession style of play is their biggest asset and the key to being able to control the pace of the contest and close out difficult periods.
The Giants are ready for the big dance after a relentless season
At their very best, the Giants can beat anyone.
Although they’ve reached the grand final the hard way, last weekend’s 64-61 victory against the Fever gave them some momentum.
From the start of 2021, the team were tipped to make it to the end, playing with such creativity and enthusiasm in the pre-season that they looked unstoppable.
Even after losing their starting goal attack to injury early on, they lived up to this hype, right up until round five, when they lost their first match after facing a strict and unexpected stint in quarantine on arrival in Perth.
The loss had a knock-on effect, seeing them drop two more in a row, and fatigue started to take hold in the middle rounds. But some desperate, dig-deep efforts saw them get back on track to claim the minor premiership.
Nine of their 10 players that will take the court are NSW home-grown, and although only three of them experienced their 2017 grand final run.
With both leading super shot scorers in the league, the team has worked out a happy medium in recent weeks between the riskier long two-point shots and single steady goals.
It’s also been exciting to see their younger players learn when to embrace an open style of play, and when to bunker down on their structures and ensure they do the basics well.
To win a maiden Super Netball trophy would be a significant moment for the club, especially after all they’ve endured in 2021.
You can catch the Super Netball grand final live on Channel Nine or on the ABC Listen app from 2:30pm AEST.