By discussing it, coach Simone McKinnis does not want to overstate its significance, but here are the facts: four of the Melbourne Vixens’ five wins this season have come on the road, and both their losses have been at home. A: Why? B: What needs to be done?
Last year, when a similar pattern was emerging, there was talk of spending the pre-game night together in a Melbourne hotel, to simulate the team bonding that happens routinely when the Vixens travel. This week, the subject was discussed after the last leg of a timely treble of away victories, and before Saturday’s meeting with the defending champion Adelaide Thunderbirds. At Hisense Arena. Home.
Part of captain Bianca Chatfield’s theory is that road trips give semi-professional netballers – the majority of whom combine their sport with a day job – the chance to channel their full-time inner athlete. There are no meals to prepare, bosses to placate, or obligations to juggle, which leaves the focus purely on preparation and performance. At home, real life distractions can sometimes intrude.
“Yes, it is a bit like that,” agreed McKinnis. “And we spoke the other night about the fact that when we do get together on Saturday just to be really mindful right from the word go about being together and working together like we would be if we were somewhere else. It’s hard, it’s tricky, actually. I’ve sort of been thinking about it a bit this week.
“It’s difficult to put the finger on [the reason], But, also, we don’t want to make a big deal, an issue, out of it. Everybody’s mindful that the preparation and everything has to be spot on this week, like every week … So, yeah, a big game for us this Saturday.”
And a big week for the five Vixens selected in the preliminary Commonwealth games squad for Glasgow, including seven-gamer Liz Watson, while former Diamonds’ vice-captain Cath Cox played an exceptional second half in Sunday’s late charge past the NSW Swifts that returned the Vixens to the top of the ladder. The Thunderbirds, in contrast, have logged three consecutive losses for the first time in their ANZ Championship history, while losing wing attack Leigh Waddington to a season-ending knee injury and failing to quite cover the off-season departure of key defender Sharni Layton.
Midcourter Emily Beaton has been sidelined throughout with a foot injury, and veteran Wendy Jacobsen was drafted from the Victorian Netball League for the upset loss to the West Coast Fever in the T-birds’ last start. McKinnis is unsure whether Beaton will return in this, round eight, and also whether Adelaide coach Jane Woodlands-Thompson will opt for Kate Shimmin or Sam Poolman at goal keeper.
What she knows, however, is that, regardless of recent results, the team that beat the Vixens twice in 2014 – including by 10 goals in last year’s major semi-final – will provide formidable opposition. “It’s always just really tough,” McKinnis said. “They’ve had the bye and it would be hurting them that they’ve had those three losses. You know they’re always going to be really well-prepared, and we really do need to put out the quality of netball that we have in the last couple of weeks, and even more so.”
The past three have steadied the Vixens’ season after successive stumbles against the Firebirds and Magic, but the eye-catcher was last week’s stirring 56-50 overhaul of the Swifts after trailing at every change, and by nine during the third quarter. “I was super-pleased about that win in terms of what we learnt about ourselves as a team and what we’re capable of.” McKinnis said. “To be put in a really challenging position – anybody watching would have said ‘we’re gone’, and we could easily have been gone – and pull back from that and to do it so well, and to then pull away with the game, it says a lot about the guts and determination and just the team spirit, and that’s why I really enjoyed that win.
“It was back towards what we are capable of and what we should be putting out there … I mean, Swifts were playing really good netball, yet we were still able to just keep going at our job. There was nothing magical about what we did, it was just plugging away at our game and we got ourselves back into it.”