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‘Hell and back’: road through toughest Super Netball season on record

“It’s all right, next one.” Stand beside a netball court anywhere in Australia and this simple phrase will likely ring out. Whether it comes from someone on court or a coach beside it, it is a time-honoured way to quickly focus a players’ mind on the next play, the next job, regardless of what just happened.

Used from grassroots to the elite level, the saying is a perfect precis of the relentless pragmatism demanded of netballers, who play under convoluted, often frustrating rules but have no time to dwell because of the speed of the sport.

In 2021, this “it’s all right, next one” catchphrase became equally relevant to off-court manoeuvres and could easily have been the official slogan of the Super Netball season – and the two NSW-based teams who contested Saturday’s decider in Brisbane.

With Covid again wreaking havoc, league administrators and teams were constantly forced to readjust and reset, like a goal keeper trying to work out what an umpire deems three feet; smiling, nodding in acceptance, and going again.

More than any other sides, the premiership-winning Swifts and their grand final opponents the Giants bore the brunt of the constant fixture fine-tuning, spending nearly 70 days on the road after escaping Sydney on 23 June. They left home for what they thought would be a week and ended up relocating to four different states, often on short notice and late at night.

Both dealt with varying Covid complications, including quarantine rules changing mid-flight in the case of the Giants’ trip to Perth and exposure anxiety which threatened to derail their seasons and saw Swifts coach Briony Akle miss a match.

To even make it to grand final day was a remarkable act of resilience for both the league and the two NSW sides, which have side-by-side change rooms in Sydney.

But it was the Swifts who were able to focus their minds on the next thing, then the next – on and off the court – to take out what was undoubtedly the toughest Super Netball season on record.

After a scorching 6-0 start, the Swifts always looked in control in the final, with a master plan from Akle’s assistant Bec Bulley to nullify the influence of 19-year-old Giants shooter Sophie Dwyer executed to perfection by MVP Maddy Turner.

At the other end, Trinidad and Tobago star Sam Wallace proved as unstoppable as she did in the 2019 grand final, scoring 14 from 16 in the first quarter to set up the win and finishing with 51.

A gallant effort from Giants shooter and captain Jo Harten, who finished with 34 from 43 attempts, could not make up for a shut-down Dwyer, who managed just 16 across the match, well down on her average for the year.

Akle – who missed her side’s game against the Pies in Brisbane in mid-July as she was in quarantine in Adelaide after being identified as close contact to an exposure site in Melbourne – said after the game it was “really special” to have a derby final.

“Both teams have been through hell and back, so for New South Wales, I think it’s huge and it’s such a shame [this game] wasn’t there,” she said. “I definitely look at them [the Giants] and think they’re winners as well. We’ve got great sympathy, not only losing the grand final, but we’re away from home.”

After her “lowest of the low” moment, stuck in a hotel room, coaching via Zoom, Akle and her side made a decision. It was to ensure the incalculable sacrifices of 2021 were worth something.

“Probably the lowest point for me was not being there for that game,” she said. “It was probably that moment for all of us. It’s been a tough ride for all of us. We just decided to make this count. It’s been tough and the players would say the same thing. We just had to ride the wave together.”

On a personal level, Akle wanted to make it count too. “I’ve been away from my kids for 67 days … we were never walking off that court losing,” she said.

Giants boss Julie Fitzgerald, who coached Akle as a player to a premiership with the Swifts 20 years ago almost to the day, praised the league for making the season happen.

“I think it means a lot for the sport. I’m really proud of the fact that Netball Australia [was] able to keep this competition going,” she said.

“We don’t have the resources of some of the other sports and it’s a real credit to our sport that we were able to battle through everything that we’ve had to do, just to keep this competition going.”