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Netball: Northern Thunder are crowned the Fast Net netball champions
It was a night to celebrate new beginnings and relish the season ahead, as Northern Thunder defeated the Yorkshire Jets in the Cathedral City Lighter Fast Net Grand Prix final with a 35-21 victory.
But it was the newly formed Yorkshire Jets who were the success of the tournament making it to the final the hard way while Tracey Neville’s coaching career, still in its infancy, as she guided her squad to the title at the first time of asking.
The blaring music coming over the sound system heightened the senses of the crowd that had built gradually by 6.30pm when the lights went out ahead of the first game between the two conference winners. The feeling within the hall was that people were ready. A spotlight fell on each player as they ran onto court to be introduced to the well-informed crowd.
Surrey Storm won all their games on the way to the Finals and seemingly began the night where they had left off the weekend before. New signing Pamela Cookey was paired with fellow England international Rachel Dunn in the shooters although it was impossible to tell that the Goal Attack was just beginning her Storm career such was the seamless way she fitted in.
Likewise Manchester based Northern Thunder finished their Conference undefeated which was a warning as many changes have taken place in their camp during the off-season. A new coach has taken the reigns, England captain Jade Clarke remains in New Zealand playing with the Northern Mystics and five new faces have joined the set-up.
Being a shorter form of the game there is no time to ease into Fast Net. Storm tried to stifle their opponents by keeping the ball and slowing down play. A tactic that made sense as the value of each score is increased; it didn’t go down well with supporters who had come to see fast-flowing, high intensity netball, not a textbook training drill. Thunder won the match 27-21 meaning they were through to the Grand Final.
The Yorkshire Jets lost out to Thunder in the final of the Northern Conference after added time, however, Goal Attack Rachel Shaw was named player of the qualifiers. Celtic Dragons will play all their home league games in Cardiff this season starting with their opener against Team Bath.
The Welsh girls where nowhere to be seen before the Finals began while other teams milled around the cafés of the Sports Park. When they did step on court their compact group of travelling supporters showed small can be mighty as they shouted encouragement and instructions from the first centre pass.
Both teams took some time to get into the match but the Jets forged a lead after mistakes in the mid-court by the Welsh. The Dragons, determined they wouldn’t be easily slain, starting putting up three pointers at every opportunity. Spectators enjoyed their attempts to play for points and as the long shots dropped in the score leveled. The final quarter action sea-sawed between the two sides encouraging the crowd to get to their feet. One point separated the teams at full time with the Jets, playing tighter netball, making it through to the Grand Final Qualifier 23-22.
It would be too straightforward to say that Jets against Storm was a battle of youth versus experience. Jets displayed no sign of battle scars and this one was close to call. Again Storm tried to slow the attack by keeping the ball which again was not well received, even by home fans.
Storm failed to find the net during crucial stages of play and were unsuccessful with the long shot. Jets stuck to their task, determinedly reaching for every ball and their tenacity was rewarded with a place in the Grand Final after defeating Storm by 30 points to 28.
Although the final score of Thunder versus Jets doesn’t tell the full story of the match, the down side of the competitions format was obvious in the Grand Final. The Jets had fought hard to get to this stage and even though the games are shorter in length, the intensity is high. They left everything they had on the court but ultimately Thunder were fresher so made fewer mistakes.
Tracy Neville’s team approached the final in a professional way, getting the points on the board when they could and keeping things tight in defense. The Jets niggled and disrupted them meaning the performance was far from flawless but with a final score line of 35-21 Thunder laid down their mark for the season in an inimitable way.
GA Rachel Shaw once again played out of her skin for the Jets, constantly looking for work. Sara Bayman has wonderful ball control and can carry and move the ball on in one flowing motion for Thunder. Officials named her teammate Laura Malcolm as player of the Finals as the WD bridged the gap between attack and defense all evening and stubbornly interrupted play by making a nuisance of herself. She also managed a few interceptions along the way too.
This was the inaugural Fast Net competition and proved to be an entertaining precursor to the Fiat Superleague season that involves the same eight teams that fought it out to be named Cathedral City Lighter champions. A competition in its infancy that, like a good cheese, will mature with distinction in the years to come.
Kerry Stewart, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine