I broke my Netball Superleague duck last night with a trip to what was (back in the day) my old Polytechnic to watch Team Northumbria take on Severn Stars.
The game offered both clubs a chance to belatedly kick-start their respective seasons after the Commonwealth Games break – Stars’ solitary success had been an admittedly impressive victory at UWS Sirens before the enforced lay-off, whilst Te Aroha Keenan’s squad was still looking for that elusive first win.
With apologies for my ignorance, the names of some of the players on view were new to me, although Team Northumbria’s captain was the instantly-recognisable Ash Neal, who had been so influential in the recent promotion of Grangetown Netball Club to the top division of the National Premier League.
There was a small section of the crowd that was very much orange and black, with Grangetown club captain Vicky Rees, defender (and member of the Superleague squad) Jenny Mrozik cheering on from the sidelines along with the club’s head coach, physio and a number of supporters.
Hayley Mulheron is another player to have represented Grangetown, and she returned to Team Northumbria after helping Scotland to a ninth-place finish at the Gold Coast Games. A play-off victory over Barbados and a great win against Wales were highlights for the Thistles, who also came agonisingly close to sharing the spoils with a Malawi side that had previously defeated New Zealand.
I remember Paige Kindred when she played for Tameside against Grangetown a couple of years ago, as did Stars’ Ellie Cardwell, now a regular member of the England international set-up. However, the visitors also included Jodie Gibson in their starting seven; Jodie having been part of the England squad that secured Commonwealth gold in the most dramatic fashion.
The one-goal win over the host nation was not only the highlight of the entire Games, it was (in my opinion) the finest moment in any team sport since the hockey gold won by Team GB’s women in Rio; and the post-match celebrations were simply wonderful to watch…
Back on Tyneside, Team Northumbria clawed back an early four-goal deficit to lead 13-12 at the end of the opening quarter. The pattern was reversed in the second period, as the home side gained a similar advantage, only for the Stars to level the scores before an all-important goal against a Northumbria centre pass gave them the opportunity to take a two-goal lead into half-time.
With 15 minutes to go, the visitors were seven goals in front and, at that stage, they looked certain to return to Worcestershire as comfortable victors. However, Northumbria produced some superb defensive pressure in the final quarter and secured enough turnover possession to have actually won the game.
The margin was twice reduced to a single goal, but a combination of unforced errors, missed shots and some superb interventions by Phumza Maweni and Sam Cook handed momentum back to the Stars and the scoreboard read 43-47 as the final hooter sounded.
Northumbria will surely take a great deal from that final period. To restrict Stars to just six goals in 15 minutes (three of which came right at the end of the game), was an outstanding effort. They applied pressure throughout the court and the visitors were definitely rattled; but the disappointment will come with the realisation that this was ultimately a chance lost.
Choosing a player of the match was no easy task. Ellie Cardwell was the pick of the shooters; she was really strong in the circle and (for all bar a few minutes in the final quarter) assured under the net. The Northumbria attacking combinations never achieved Ellie’s conversion rate, so her performance was crucial.
However, my selection would come from the other end of the court, as the Maweni-Cook partnership was instrumental in forcing errors or interceptions at the most vital moments.
Over the past few months, I’ve seen Sam Cook play three times for her club (Hucclecote) as well as the Stars, and she has been outstanding on each occasion. Sam is a superb athlete, who reads the game really well, and she would be my totally unofficial choice for the player of the match award.
As a brief postscript, my evening ended with a chance to meet Severn Stars’ Becky Oatley. Although she didn’t get any time on court last night, Becky is a determined, brave and genuinely inspiring young woman and it was a pleasure to spend a couple of minutes in her company…