To be selected to play any sport for your country is a fantastic honour that very few people are able to experience; but to earn a full international cap before you’ve made your first start for your own club’s senior squad makes the achievement even more remarkable.
Yet for teenage netballer Erin Peters, that is exactly what has happened.
Erin’s progress towards her Ireland netball debut was actually even more unconventional, as prior to becoming an all-action mid-courter, she had been one of the finest gymnasts in the country in her chosen discipline.
“I did tumbling on a long mat,” Erin explained. “It’s not an Olympic event, but it’s really popular. I progressed through county, regional and through to national levels where you competed for a place in the top three in the country. I came third in my first year, second the year after, and finally won the competition in my third year, and it was after that when I decided to really concentrate on netball.
“I joined a local team in Stockton, but moved to Grangetown after Faye [Johnston] saw me, and said I should come and play at Grangetown. I’ve been part of the club for about two years now, but after training here for about a year, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Queen Ethelburga’s School near York, where Tuaine [Keenan] is one of my coaches. Grangetown have been so supportive and now I’m playing for Ireland … it’s all happened so fast and it’s quite hard to take in.”
Erin admitted that she’d also done a lot of cross country running, at which point I thought it was reasonable to ask: “Is there anything you’re rubbish at?
“Football… and rugby,” Erin giggled.
Just the two sports then … my fault for asking!
Erin is the second English-based Grangetown player (after Katie Walton) to be drafted into the Ireland squad, but how did she become involved in the Irish set-up?
“A while ago, the Ireland squad travelled over to play a match against Grangetown, and I had a call asking if I could play in the game; so, I came down and played as part of the Grangetown squad. After the match, everyone was shaking hands and saying ‘well played’, and one of the Ireland players jokingly said: ‘It’s a shame you don’t have any Irish relatives; you’d really fit in well to our squad.’
“’Actually, I do!!’
“We chatted some more and then Joan [Young, Ireland coach] came over to talk to me. We stayed in touch and about six months later, Joan invited me to a training session. I’ve only been over to Ireland twice for training, and played with the girls on just three occasions. I had the chance to play in friendly matches against Northern Ireland in Belfast, and then a weekend playing against the Armed Forces in Portsmouth; but the third time was the Netball Europe tournament in the Isle of Man, where I made my full debut.”
It's quite a big deal to fly to train with a group of people, some of whom you’ve met (briefly) once, but the majority you don’t know at all. How did Erin find that experience?
“My parents are both from Northern Ireland, as are nearly all my family, so I thought I was used to the accent, but when I first went across, there were a couple of girls I found it quite hard to understand!
“Everyone was so friendly though. I got to know them much better the second time I went across when we were in a match situation. Jan [Hynes] took me under her wing; she was lovely. There are also a couple of other English-based girls in the squad, and obviously I knew Billy [Katie Walton] and Genevieve [Slater] from Grangetown, which really helped.
“Then I met Fran [Duffy] who was quite close to my age. She was studying at Manchester and has since joined Grangetown too. Everyone’s been great and made me feel so welcome, and that made it much easier when I joined the squad for the Euros.”
There must have been nerves before that first game though?
“Definitely. I was selected for the opening game against the Cayman Islands and I was really anxious beforehand. I was picked to start at wing attack, and that was a bit of added pressure because if you start at centre, you don’t have to cross the line, you just have to pass the ball; so I was thinking ‘get over the line … second phase…’ and things like that. The girls told me I would be fine; that I knew what I was doing, and I’d relax once the match got underway … but yes, I was very nervous before the game…
“We got ready in the changing rooms then there was a pre-warm-up area where we could do some stretches and Niamh [Murphy] and I could discuss tactics. After that we went into the main arena for the warm-up, which was really the time to get rid of any nerves. If you’re going to drop a ball or throw a bad pass, do it in the warm-up then everything should be fine when the game gets underway.”
Ireland have traditionally been strong in the attacking mid-court positions. Captain Niamh Murphy led the team at the Euros, and recent squads have also included top-class players such as Kirsty Owens and Trish Fanning, but Erin acquitted herself superbly throughout the tournament. I was interested to know what Erin thought about featuring alongside one of Ireland’s finest ever netballers?
“Playing with Niamh is just amazing; she’s obviously very experienced and I feel really confident when I’m on court with her. Even though we’ve not played together very much, I think we combine well and just seem to click whether it’s on the circle edge, centre passes or channels; and she’s great at passing on advice and helping to improve my game.”
The next question showed the kind of probing insight that you just don’t get from professional interviewers: Did you ever consider showing off and doing one of your tumbling routines?
I reminded Erin of Kadeen Corbin’s famous back flips down the court after England had won Commonwealth gold last year. Erin laughed: “Next time we win, I’ll give Corbin a run for her money!”
Remember where you read it first.
Reflecting on her first taste of competitive international netball, what was the highlight? “That first game, the first experience; that was definitely the highlight because I didn’t know exactly what to expect…
“I thought the team played really well against Emirates too,” Erin continued, “but all the games provided us with new challenges. The Gibraltar match was the hardest; they’d watched our earlier games and were able to stop us playing to our strengths; it was tough, but you can really learn from games like that.”
I had managed to watch some of the action on the live stream and the commentators had a lot of positive things to say about the Stockton-based teenager. Was Erin aware of the compliments her performances were receiving?
“I had no clue. I don’t think I realised how big the tournament really was until we sat down to dinner on the Thursday night, and the girls told me that what the commentators had been saying. I rang my Mum and told her the games were being streamed, and she tuned in for every match after that - my family in Ireland were watching too. Mum would ring me on an evening to tell me what had been said, and obviously we had to watch some of the games back to review our performances. It was so weird hearing my name, and realising it was me that they were talking about.”
Having only played a few minutes in one Prem 1 game, how big was the jump from club to international netball?
“From club to country was a massive step,” Erin admitted, “but I’d been lucky enough to be part of the Queen Ethelburga’s squad that had become under 19 schools champions last year – we finished fifth this year – and playing against some of the best netballers in the country in your age group was great preparation for Ireland. The standard is so high and when you’re exposed to all those amazing players, that’s when you start to see if you’ve got the ability to step-up when it really matters.
“Although I haven’t really been involved much with the Grangetown Prem squad on matchdays yet, I have been able to train with the squad, which has been brilliant. The training is fantastic and that has also played a big part in being able to manage the transition into the Ireland squad.”
So, is the Prem 1 squad one of Erin’s goals?
“Of course. I definitely want to try and play Prem. I’m moving to university in Nottingham in September, but the games are on a weekend, so I’ll stay affiliated to Grangetown and hopefully if there’s an opportunity to play Prem 1, that’s something I’d love to do.
“I’ve also got the chance to have trials for Loughborough Lightning under 19s and 21s, so I’ll be trying to get involved with a franchise as well; and with Uni, Ireland, Grangetown and hopefully Loughborough, the competition levels will be amazing, and all being well, I’ll be able to keep improving my game. Certainly, if I got into the Prem squad at Grangetown, it would be a big achievement.”
Erin’s only appearance for the Prem 1 squad came when she was brought on towards the end of last season’s home fixture against eventual champions Oldham. Marking Erin that day was Laura Malcolm, who played such a major role in Manchester Thunder’s recent Super League Grand Final success. Kerry Almond and Kathryn Turner, both so influential in that final against Wasps, were also on court for Oldham; it’s hard to imagine a much better club side, or a harder introduction.
“I didn’t have much court time,” Erin recalled, “I think it was about five minutes, but Gel wanted to give me the experience and it was great. Oldham were top of the league and it was really tough, but it was also good to see just how high the standard was and what I’ve got to aim for.”
Back to the Euros and one of the things that stood out was Erin’s pace and movement around the court. Is Erin’s speed her biggest asset?
“Yes, it’s definitely my main strength, but I work hard on my stamina too, so I can maintain my speed throughout the whole game and not just for a couple of quarters. I like having a lot of running room, and moving my marker around the court as much as I can. That’s certainly my style of play and I think that when I was playing alongside Fran and Niamh at the Euros, we were able to inject some pace into our attacking play and get the ball down court really quickly.”
Erin Peters is clearly a gifted and confident athlete; she is also an outgoing and engaging young woman, who has already achieved so much in the sporting arena; but from a netball perspective, what does the future hold?
“I just want to work hard, play as well as I can for Grangetown, Ireland and hopefully Loughborough; and see where all that takes me. I’ll go to the under 19 and under 21 trials at Loughborough, so that I can come up against players that are two or three years older than me. That will give me a good idea of my strengths and the areas that I need to work on. The long-term ambition is Super League, but whatever happens I am so grateful to Grangetown for giving me such a good attitude to the game, and a desire to become the best player I possibly can.”
It was hard to know how to react as the final hooter brought an end not only to Grangetown’s fixture at Leeds Athletic, but also to the club’s first season in Prem 1.
The scoreboard read 53-40 in favour of the hosts; a deserved victory for a Leeds side that has been so impressive throughout the second half of the season.
Initially, there was an element of disappointment at the result … at the last three results in fact; three consecutive defeats coming after only five losses in the first 15 games of the campaign.
There was also a slightly surreal feeling that the season was over – all the preparation, the training, the travelling, and eighteen hugely competitive games – the past six months or so has simply flown by…
Then comes the time to reflect.
Two successive promotions (including one championship) had seen Grangetown elevated from a very good club, to one of the elite. It was always going to be a massive step, and unsurprisingly the pre-season aspiration was simply to perform well enough to stay in the top flight.
The reality was so much better…
Only four sides won 10 or more of their 18 fixtures; champions Oldham, runners-up New Cambell and Viper 10 Blades. Three outstanding sides. The fourth?
That would be Grangetown.
Some sparkling performances at home, and perhaps more importantly on the road, saw Grangetown essentially (albeit not mathematically) safe by Christmas. In a division littered with Super League stars, it was an almost unheralded club from just outside Middlesbrough that surprised many an established Prem 1 squad; and their top-four finish was just reward for the time and effort invested both on and off the court.
However, with success comes expectation, and once the reflection is over, the next stage is to focus fully on 2019/20. I have no doubt that plans for next season are already underway, but given the relative remoteness of the club to any Super League franchises, attracting top quality athletes to the north east to complement and enhance an already fine squad is no easy task…
But that is the challenge faced by Grangetown if they are to build on the foundations laid over the past three years, and maintain their remarkable progress from relegation to Prem 3 in 2016 to becoming the fourth best club in the country less than three years later.
As far as the game at Leeds is concerned, Grangetown started slowly, but showed their customary determination to get back into contention during the second quarter. Unfortunately, their offensive play was less cohesive than usual, possession was turned over on too many occasions, and from being in a situation where they could and should have been on terms, the visitors found themselves six goals adrift and Leeds were playing far too well to relinquish that kind of advantage.
My Grangetown Player of the Match was Tuaine Keenan, who produced several moments of pure class in defence, less than 24 hours after helping her Loughborough Lightning side to a dramatic one-goal Super League win over Severn Stars.
The most notable cameo came from Nicole Malloy who certainly made an impact when she was given a chance at goal attack. As for the individual moment of the game, that was undoubtedly a sublime interception by Vicky Rees; a wonderful piece of anticipation and athleticism that brought the Grangetown bench to its feet.
For Leeds, goal shooter Vanessa Williams was superb from the first minute to the last; she was strong, agile and unerringly accurate throughout. At the other end of the court, Alice Smith looked an outstanding athlete, and had a fine game in defence.
For Grangetown, it may have been a result to forget, but for the amazing squad, and everyone involved with the club, the 2018/19 season is one that will live long in the memory.
It takes a talented athlete to come to a new (and newly promoted) netball club, to quickly settle in both on and off the court, and be able to play so consistently well that she becomes a regular in the starting seven…
Claudia Heath is undoubtedly a talented athlete.
Her performances at wing defence have been outstanding during Grangetown’s quite remarkable debut season in Prem 1; but aged just 21 Claudia is also one of the younger members of the squad.
In fact, Claudia was a relatively late starter in netball terms: “I didn’t play netball until the end of primary school, when I was around 11 or 12. I loved all sports, and up until then I did a lot of athletics and played football too. I come from quite a sporting family; my Dad [Billy] played professional football and he is currently the manager at Alfreton Town [who play in the National League North].
“I think I was picked out to try netball because I was so tall for my age. I thought I’d give it a go and everything just happened from there really…
“I grew up in Hull and I played at a club there until I was about 14, when I joined Leeds Athletic; and I played for Leeds until I moved to Grangetown.”
That must have involved a lot of travelling?
“It did, but my parents have been brilliant. They’d take me all over the country to games and trials. They’ve always been so supportive…
“But when I left school, I went to Uni in Leeds. I love the city, and it was the place where I really wanted to go to study. Obviously that made things easier with the netball, but even though I’ve got a lot of good friends at the club, I felt it was time for a change at the end of last season…”
It was clear that Claudia was about to explain how she joined Grangetown; but that was actually the next question on my professionally-compiled list. Every time I do an interview, half of my questions seem to get answered before I get the chance to ask them; but I did the honourable thing … interrupted and asked anyway.
Claudia it’s back over to you…
“Brie [Grierson] told me about Grangetown. And I also knew Abbie [Le Brocq] from Team Northumbria, and they both spoke highly about the club, so I thought I’d come along and see for myself. Gel [Williams] was so lovely. Everyone made me feel welcome, even before I’d officially joined, so the decision to come to Grangetown was a no-brainer for me.”
Claudia has also gained international honours, having represented England at U19 and U21 levels; the highlight being a tour to Jamaica with the U19s. I was interested to know if any members of the squad had progressed into Super League: “Amy Carter is at Manchester Thunder. There’s Iona Darroch down at Severn Stars, and Amy Clinton who’s just joined Loughborough. They’re all doing really well.”
So do you have Super League ambitions of your own?
“Maybe in the future. I’m in the third year of my PE degree at the moment, and I’m going to do a Masters in social work after that, so I always knew that this year in particular was going to be really difficult; and I’d have to concentrate hard on my studies to make sure I do well. So as far as netball is concerned, whilst I’m still doing a lot of training, I wanted to make sure I had the right balance between course work and sport, but also be relaxed enough to really enjoy my netball – and that’s certainly the case with Grangetown.”
So how does a typical week look?
“Most days I’m training at seven in the morning, before doing a full day at college, then more training on an evening, either with the Uni squad, or with Grangetown on a Tuesday. This week I’ve got to go down to Cardiff for a day too, so that’s another early start. I usually get the chance to relax a bit on a Saturday, before Prem on the Sunday.
“So I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I think I’ve got the balance right, and I’m having such a great time at Grangetown!
“Like I said, everyone made me feel so welcome, and I felt part of the club right from the beginning. I’m happy with how I’m playing; I certainly don’t feel stressed out on court - in fact I’m loving every minute!”
Is wing defence your preferred position?
“I do love playing there, but for most of my career I played at goal keeper or goal defence. It just happened that there were a lot of defenders in the Uni squad, so I took the chance to try and push forward, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
“We’re lucky at Grangetown because we’ve got so much strength in our defence; it doesn’t matter which combination is out on court, Tuaine [Keenan], Billy [Katie Walton], Jenny [Mrozik], or Gen [Slater] when she was here, they are all fantastic players, and I feel confident whoever is on court behind me.
“Of course it was a blow when we lost Gen at Christmas, but we’re all looking forward to seeing her again after she’s had her baby. A Grangetown baby … it’s so exciting!”
For some reason, wing attack seems to be a particularly strong position in the majority of Prem 1 squads, but of all the players that Claudia has faced during her time with Grangetown; does one in particular stand out?
“Yes. It was Georgia Lees, who plays for New Cambell and Mavs [Saracens Mavericks] in Super League. She was definitely the toughest opponent I’ve faced; she was so quick, and so agile; I was in awe of her really.”
If you haven’t read my report on the New Cambell game, I can confirm the young lady in question most certainly is that Georgia Lees!
Although that game ended up as a heavy defeat, there have been very few set-backs during what has been a quite remarkable season. The best news of all is now that Grangetown are mathematically safe from relegation, even Head Coach Gel Williams is confident that just one more win will guarantee survival…
But in Claudia’s opinion, what has been the squad’s best performance?
“The win away at Academy was definitely a highlight. We went down to London, a five or six hour journey, without our Super League players, to face a side that is always challenging near the top of the table – and we came away with the win.
“We worked so hard and deserved the win. The result was probably seen as a massive shock though, and maybe it made some of the other teams sit up and take notice. Obviously we’re stronger with Ash [Neal], Brie and Tuaine in the squad, any side would be, but we showed that we can perform without them; so it’s probably that performance that really stands out.”
You’ve still got to visit your former club before the end of the season; how do you look at the final few fixtures; and what are your plans going forward?
“I’m looking forward to going back to Leeds, but we’re going there for the win. We don’t just want to finish mid-table after all the work we’ve put in; we all feel that we’re capable of finishing fourth, so we’ve got to make sure we maintain our performance levels for the final few games.
“As far as next season is concerned, I definitely want to stay at Grangetown – I’ve enjoyed this season so much. I don’t know if there’ll be many changes in the squad, but even though we’ve had an amazing season, every squad will be looking to improve and that’s what we must try to do as well…”
At this point, the extremely poor phone signal was lost for the third (and final) time, and with our conversation at an end, I was absolutely certain of two things.
Claudia Heath: talented athlete … unreliable phone.
Grangetown’s final home fixture in Prem 1 ended in a 50-68 defeat at the hands of Viper 10 Blades.
The Blades went into the game in third position, one place and six points ahead of a Grangetown side that had lost just once in six games, but were missing influential wing defence Claudia Heath through injury, and Ash Neal, Brie Grierson and Tuaine Keenan due to Super League commitments.
Viper 10 Blades were without a couple of players who had featured for Surrey Storm the previous evening, but travelled north having produced one of the results of the season to defeat New Cambell in their most recent away game.
Grangetown Head coach Gel Williams was able to hand a first start to Ireland international Fran Duffy, and she was the pick of a Grangetown side that produced a battling performance, but were beaten by a well-organised Blades squad that capitalised on any errors and shot confidently and accurately throughout the game.
Jenny Mrozik and Hannah Raine played from the start and both made telling contributions, as did Sophie McFarlane and Nicole Malloy when brought on from the bench.
It is a hard task for a Premier League coach to guarantee consistent opportunities and regular court time, but it says a lot about the depth and spirit within this Grangetown squad that every player can make a positive impact whenever a chance is presented.
Grangetown’s home campaign ended with five wins and four defeats, but after a season-opening loss against a strong Academy side, the only teams to have travelled to Grangetown and won are the three above them in the table: Oldham, New Cambell and Viper 10 Blades.
To those five home wins, Grangetown have added a further four on their travels. With three further away games still to be played, there is a possibility that the club’s away record could match the results at home, which would a rare and notable achievement at this level.
Vicky Rees and Ria Small, captain and vice-captain respectively, have set the highest standards and led by example all season. They will have their sights set on a top-five finish, but whatever happens between now and the end of the campaign, Grangetown have exceeded all expectations and enjoyed an outstanding debut year in the top flight of English club netball.
All photos by Sarah Raine
Alice linked up well with her attacking partner Abbie Le Brocq to reduce the deficit, but Tameside scored again following a perfectly-weighted pass from Dom, which just evaded the onrushing Tuaine Keenan.
The teams then traded goals as well as a series of errors, and it took a lovely piece of interplay between Abbie and Alice to hand the former the chance to bring the scores level.
Twice Elzabeth Cardwell got a hand to the ball to knock it out of play, but from the second restart, Abbie netted from distance to give Grangetown the lead. Alice cancelled out a goal from Ally, before a sweeping move across court and back resulted in Ally bringing parity to proceedings once again.
Brie Grierson’s lovely flighted pass set up Alice for the next goal, but the quarter’s decisive moment came with a brilliant piece of intuitive skill from Tuaine who intercepted a short pass from a feigned shot to secure possession. Alice scored from distance to open up a two-goal lead – an advantage that the home side would not relinquish.
Grangetown piled on the defensive pressure to force two more errors, Alice and Abbie finishing off the respective moves and Grangetown led 13-9 at the end of the quarter.
It had been an entertaining, but quite tense opening period between two very good sides. Tameside made the better start, but with Grangetown upping their defensive intensity and applying pressure throughout the court, they probably deserved the early advantage.
Early in the second period, Beccy set up a chance with an excellent feed, but the shot was missed and quick precise passing from Tuaine, Claudia and Ria Small took play down court, and Abbie scored an important goal against the Tameside centre pass following a penalty awarded inside the circle.
Nice movement and interplay between Abbie and Alice was replicated by Beccy and Brogan Slicker for the visitors. In the space of a couple of minutes, Tuaine and Vicky Rees both turned over possession, and with Claudia producing yet another tremendous performance at wing defence, the Tameside attack was briefly blunted.
From 16-11 Grangetown quickly took their lead into double figures with good feeds and clinical finishing at one end complementing the outstanding defending at the other.
Tameside eventually got back on the scoresheet, after Brogan brilliantly kept the ball in play after an initial shot had bounced off the ring of the net.
The visitors scored again after what looked a clear foul on Brie was called the other way, and assured finishes from both Tameside shooters reduced the deficit to seven – the last of those goals coming from a lovely long pass from Kelsie; Brogan making no mistake from the subsequent feed.
However, an overthrown pass was gratefully collected by Tuaine; possession was squandered but then superbly reclaimed by Brie who got a hand to a mid-court pass and deflected the ball straight to Claudia.
Alice duly converted, but after Beccy and Alice combined nicely to cancel out the goal, Grangetown had the benefit of a fortunate call from the umpire who blew for an off-the-ball foul against Tameside just as a wayward pass was about to hand possession back to the visitors.
Grangetown didn’t take advantage though, both shooters choosing to pass when seemingly well-placed to take a shot, and they were made to pay as Tameside turned over the ball, and Brogan netted from Beccy’s feed.
Ria’s bullet pass was collected and converted by Abbie, but Brogan scored from long-range to made the score 29-22 as the half-time hooter sounded. The seven-goal advantage meant that Grangetown remained in the ascendency, but Tameside had shown plenty of quality in the opening half an hour, and the result still felt in the balance.
Katie Walton came on at goal keeper for the third period, and her first touch was to pluck a pass out of the air to claim a turnover. Tuaine made an interception from Tameside’s next attack, with Abbie scoring from the subsequent passage of play, but nice vision from the increasingly influential Beccy allowed Ally to convert from close-range.
Grangetown wasted possession after Katie had claimed a rebound, but the whole team was maintaining their defensive intensity, the result being a three-second call against the visitors. The ball went out of play from the penalty, but Abbie was first to react and a quick exchange with Ria set up another goal.
Brie’s long pass then split the defence for Alice to score the first of two quick goals. Katie then forced an error and made another interception, but on both occasions, errors cost Grangetown the chance to further extend their lead.
Aurnia Barlow, who had come on at goal shooter for Tameside, scored well under pressure; Beccy’s cleverly-delayed feed handed Tameside another opportunity and three more quick goals brought the difference back to seven.
In fact, Tameside missed a golden opportunity to further reduce the arrears, but Tuaine claimed an all-important rebound to hand the initiative back to the home side. From their next possession, Tameside broke quickly out of defence, but the final pass was anticipated by Tuaine who completed an interception that was far more difficult than the Loughborough defender made it look.
After Grangetown scored three unanswered goals, Claudia was penalised despite taking what looked like a brilliant mid-air catch, but Katie’s equally superb tip on the resulting shot denied Tameside a goal right on the hooter, and with one period remaining, the home side led by ten - 42-32.
Grangetown shuffled their pack for the final quarter, with Vicky returning at centre in place of Ria, Jenny Mrozik coming on at goal defence, Tuaine moving to goal keeper and Katie returning to the bench after a quite sublime cameo.
With Brie injecting real pace into the Grangetown attack, the home side gradually drew further ahead. Jenny and Vicky both made a positive impact in the closing minutes and with Grangetown having passed the 50 mark, Fran Duffy was introduced at goal attack.
Fran duly opened her account at the first time of asking, but perhaps fittingly, the possession that led to the goal was secured by Claudia and Tuaine, both of whom had been excellent throughout the whole game.
The game ended in a 55-40 victory for Grangetown. The margin of victory was perhaps greater than had seemed likely during what had been a closely-contested first half, but hard as Tameside fought, and as well as they played for long periods of the game, they couldn’t match the pace and intensity of a really cohesive Grangetown squad.
Ria and Vicky have led by example all season, the attacking pairing of Abbie and Alice is getting stronger with every game, and Brie, as always, made a massive contribution;; but this win was built around the defence, with all the combinations providing a stern test for a quick and mobile Tameside attack, expertly marshalled by Beccy Hoult.
Tuaine Keenan was rightly named Player of the Match, and the result strengthens Grangetown’s fourth- position with just five games remaining in what is rapidly becoming a quite remarkable season.
It has been quite a while since the last interview with a member of Grangetown’s Prem squad, but this first offering of 2019 features the shooter who goals have helped to secure successive promotions and a current top-five position in Prem 1 – Abbie LeBrocq.
Usually, these articles start off with the same old question: When did you start playing netball? I wanted to come up with a new, different, exciting way of opening the conversation; but I’m very much a creature of habit; so…when did Abbie first start playing netball?!
“I first started at school when I was about twelve. Not by choice though; I was made to play … they needed someone tall!
“I was actually a swimmer up until that point, but by the time I was fifteen, I’d stopped swimming and was concentrating on netball. My first club was Harrogate Phoenix, but when I started at Queen Ethelburga’s School, they advised me to move to Leeds Athletic, and then I joined Grangetown at eighteen.”
Abbie also represented Yorkshire Jets at under 17 and under 19 levels, as well as Team Northumbria under 21s. She played alongside current Grangetown team mates Claudia Heath at Leeds and the Jets, and both Brie Grierson and Tuaine Keenan were in the Jets’ Super League squad when she was playing under 19s.
Abbie has already mentioned her height (she stands 6’ 2”), and whilst Grangetown supporters have only seen her in the goal shooter and goal attack bibs, I wondered if she had ever played in any other position?
“In year 7 at school I was actually a goal keeper. It wasn’t until I joined Harrogate [Phoenix] at fourteen, that I was given a chance to shoot. I’m comfortable at goal shooter, but I do enjoy having the chance to play at goal attack … it’s nice to be able to run around the court every now and again!”
Abbie’s educational pursuits took her from her Yorkshire home to Newcastle, so what prompted a new university student to travel to Middlesbrough for club netball? And just how easy was it to fit in to a new club?
“I was training at my old school, during the summer before I went to university, Gel [Williams] happened to be there, and Te [Aroha Keenan] took me over to speak to her. Grangetown had just been relegated to Prem 3 and I think a few players must have left the club; Gel said they were looking for a new shooter and it all went from there really.
“I found it really easy to fit in at Grangetown. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming and there was a nice vibe around the club. Everyone wants you there, and wants you to do well. We’re playing in a strong division, but we’re not put under loads of pressure, and that actually helps us to go out and play our best netball.”
Interestingly, during a number of previous interviews and conversations, several players had singled out Abbie for the extent that her game had developed and improved during her first two full seasons – both of which ended in promotion – but how does Abbie assess her own progress?
“I’m so much stronger physically. I go to the gym a lot more and all the strength and conditioning work has definitely helped. The coaches are great and they’ve certainly played a big part in developing my game, and out on court, it’s been great to play alongside Ash [Neal], Brie and Ria [Small]. I particularly love watching Ash and Brie play together; how they think, move, and combine. All three of them understand my game and how I move in the circle, and they just feed so well … they’ve made a big difference.
“And training with the Team Northumbria squad when I was in the under 21s helped a lot too. You learn so much when you’re on court with girls like Brie, Claudia and Chiara [Semple].”
Watching on from the sidelines, I would add that Abbie has also grown massively in confidence over the past two-and-a-bit seasons. There were occasions early in her career at Grangetown when experienced defenders were able to affect her performance, deny her easy opportunities or pressurise her into missing shots.; but watching the talented, but relatively raw teenager blossom into a strong and assured young woman on court has been both fascinating and fantastic.
Of course, netball is a team game, but any successful side needs someone dependable in the circle, and in my opinion, Abbie simply has to be one of the best shooters outside Super League…
Looking back at the end of last season, it must have been a wonderful feeling not just to secure promotion to Prem 1, but to do so as champions. How does Abbie reflect on that win at Clan?
“It was great … I got to play goal attack!
“I think it was important knowing that we would go straight into Prem 1 if we won that last match. We didn’t have to worry about goal average or anything like that; it was all in our own hands. From what I remember, we were always in control of the game, and everyone was so happy afterwards. The atmosphere on the way back was fantastic; and it was lovely that some supporters were able to make the trip too.
“I did find all the travelling difficult at first, but I’m starting to get used to the long journeys; I even look forward to them – although it definitely helps when you’re winning!”
Being promoted twice at the first time of asking is remarkable, but competing in Prem 1 was always going to present a new set of challenges. How big is the change from Prem 2 to Prem 1?
“It’s a massive step-up. So many Super League players are at Prem 1 clubs. You do see the odd one or two in Prem 2, but most of the Prem 1 squads have two or three, or maybe more. Every game you know you’re going to be facing a big name … the players are so much stronger, which is why I needed to get stronger too. It can be quite scary at times, but we’ve done well so far.”
A slight understatement perhaps?!
“Although it can be quite daunting to go up against a really top player, it’s good to push yourself, and know that if you play well, you can get your shots in and compete with some of the best players in the country.
“Sometimes as a shooter, it can be hard not to let the defender get in your head. I’m lucky that I’m tall and there aren’t many players who can tip the ball when I’m shooting, but I still get nervous. I just have to remember all the hours of practice I’ve done and take confidence from knowing that I can shoot.”
Just as a spectator, it has been enjoyable to see so many outstanding players out on court, but from the perspective of someone who is right in the middle of the action, do any players stand out in particular?
“Chiara Semple is one of the best I’ve ever played with or against,” came the immediate response. “I’ve always admired her; the way she carries the ball, the skill she has. I’ve learned a lot from her and we’re also very good friends. She plays in the same position as me though, so if I had to pick someone I’ve played directly against, I’d probably say Razia Quashie.
“She plays for Mavericks in Super League and recently made her England debut, but she was in the Academy side in our first game of the Prem 1 season. She really was very good. Solid and so strong, you just couldn’t move her – she was actually moving me; and it was so hard just trying to stand my ground next to someone so strong.
“She played at goal keeper and Academy also had Vicki Oyesola at goal defence. Vicki plays alongside Tuaine at Loughborough Lightning, and I actually came up against her in a university game earlier this week. She’s such a good player too, and Vicki and Razia are probably the best defensive combination I’ve faced.”
Grangetown have certainly exceeded all realistic expectations this season – some of the performances have been brilliant to watch. I was interested in how Abbie assesses the squad’s progress, and whether such a run of almost uninterrupted success can actually feel slightly surreal?
“I think it was really good that I joined the club in Prem 3, so I’ve seen at first hand how we’ve progressed. We’ve had the same close core group with players like Vicky [Rees], Ria, Katie [Walton], Jenny [Mrozik] and Gen [Slater], and we’ve just got better every year.
“I was maybe a little sceptical about Prem 1,” she continued, “it is such a big jump, but although it does seem a bit surreal to see Grangetown sitting in the top five, we’ve worked incredibly hard to be where we are. We’re all so happy for Gel too. She’s put so much into the club, and it’s great to see her reaction whenever we win.”
The club’s main aim at the start of this season was to do well enough to preserve Prem 1 status. I personally thought the win away at Academy just before Christmas was the moment when “safety” was guaranteed. I can completely understand that the players and coaches would be more guarded though, but the recent win at Premier Romans was Grangetown’s seventh in twelve games.
No club has been relegated with seven wins and with Worcester and Premier Romans well adrift at the foot of the table, I’m totally comfortable that Grangetown have more than fulfilled their pre-season ambition … and much more besides. With that in mind, I finished this thoroughly enjoyable chat with yet another stock question … this time about netball ambitions.
“Actually, right nowI don’t have a lot of ambitions in netball,” Abbie readily admitted. “I’m due to graduate next summer, then I’m going to do my Masters in Law after that. I’ll have a lot of work to do, and managing my netball and training and netball around my studies will be quite challenging; but I love playing at Grangetown and I’ll definitely be back next season … if they’ll have me!”
I think they might, Abbie!
A bit of a departure today … I could compile a match report in a similar style to those I’ve written for Grangetown’s Prem squad over the past few years; but I honestly don’t think a report would do justice to the performance I saw today from Prem 1 side New Cambell.
The bare facts are that New Cambell travelled up from Essex lying second in the division; their solitary defeat coming at the hands of league leaders and reigning champions Oldham. Grangetown were in fifth position with six wins from ten fixtures in their first season at this level.
The final score was Grangetown 30, New Cambell 77.
Although it clearly had some bearing on the score, but almost certainly not the result, Grangetown were without their three Super League players, whilst New Cambell fielded five of the current Saracens Mavericks squad: Steph Collard, Michelle Drayne, Lindsay Keable, Georgia Lees and Paige McCalla.
Maybe there were other current Super League players within the 11-strong squad that travelled north … to be honest after vising the Mavericks website, I felt I’d searched enough!
Before I return to New Cambell, I have to say that Grangetown battled so hard for the entire match. Yes, they were outclassed on the day, but results like this were always possible during the club’s first ever year in Prem 1. The two things to bear in mind are firstly, the Grangetown heads never dropped, even though the outcome was decided very early on in proceedings; and secondly, this performance and result shouldn’t be taken in isolation.
After 11 games, Grangetown have six victories – including memorable away wins at Tameside and Academy. What this squad has achieved is already well beyond all realistic expectations; they have all but secured their Prem 1 status for next year, and with most squads certain to be affected by Super League commitments, more positive results are likely over the remaining seven fixtures.
Grangetown are in Prem 1 on merit. They have grown to be one of the top ten netball clubs in the country, and have already proved that they can compete with the very best – and nothing that happened today changes that…
It is to my eternal shame that I didn’t know the higher-profile New Cambell players by sight. I really should have learned my lesson right at the start of the season when Academy and Loughborough Lightning defender Vicki Oyesola had to introduce herself when we spoke after the match….
New Cambell were simply superb throughout the court, some of their individual play was breath-taking at times, and their collective performance was the best I’ve ever seen against Grangetown, but for me two players stood out.
During the first half, the New Cambell wing attack was at the heart of much of the visitors best attacking moves. At the end of the match, I took a look at the line-ups … wing attack … first half … Georgia Lees.
Not the Georgia Lees who won two Grand Finals with Surrey Storm..?
Yes, that Georgia Lees.
But with nothing less than total respect to Georgia and her team mates, the Grangetown players, coaching staff and spectators were treated to something very special in the second half.
Playing at goal defence, then goal keeper was a young lady (I believe she is 16-years old) called Funmi Fadoju. Again, I can only apologise for not being aware of her before the game … but it transpires that Funmi is an England under-17 international and one of the most outstanding athletes of her age that I have seen in any sport.
Until today, the best defender I had seen at Grangetown was Sam Cook of Hucclecote (and Severn Stars); but even to my untrained eye, Funmi is destined for great things in the sport. She was lightning quick, with great spring to go with her speed; but it was her ability to read the game that really stood out.
I lost count of the number of interceptions she made – it was a pleasure to see her on court and if (and when) she becomes a household name, I will be able to say “I was there” when Funmi Fadoju played at Grangetown.
My Grangetown Player of the Match: Claudia Heath
Today’s victory against Leeds Athletic was not only Grangetown’s final home game of 2018, it also marked the midway point of the club’s inaugural season in Premier League division 1.
With local MP Anna Turley watching from the sidelines, Grangetown took the first possible opportunity to bounce back from the previous weekend’s heavy defeat against league leaders Oldham, by recording a 54-44 success over a Leeds side that has won just one fixture so far this season.
The London Pulse Super League duo of Ash Neal and Brie Grierson both returned to the Grangetown squad, and Ireland international defender Genevieve Slater was also available. The home side’s starting seven was:
GK: Jenny Mrozik
GD: Gen Slater
WD: Claudia Heath
C: Vicky Rees (c)
WA: Ria Small
GA: Ash Neal
GS: Abbie Le Brocq
Grangetown led 16-9 at the end of the first quarter. The feature of the opening fifteen minutes was the level of pressure exerted by the Grangetown defence, which forced a number of errors, but also saw a superb interception by Claudia Heath, followed by a lightning quick transition down the court, with Ria Small feeding Ash Neal for an outstanding goal.
The final goal of the period came in similar fashion, with Gen Slater claiming her second interception in as many minutes before Abbie Le Brocq converted from distance.
The advantage had been extended to 13 goals by half time, with Grangetown producing some brilliant passages of play right throughout the court. Three goals stood out. Firstly, Ria’s fine long pass beat the entire Leeds defence to find Ash totally free under the post.
Ria then lost the ball on the edge of the circle, only for it to bounce back towards her. As the defenders moved towards her, Ria was able to lean forward, grab the ball, keep her balance and flick a pass to the unmarked Abbie.
Finally, Jenny Mrozik’s leaping interception was gathered by Gen Slater, the fast, but precise passage of play through the court ended with Abbie scoring a goal that brought the Grangetown bench to their feet.
The scoreline was 32-19 in Grangetown’s favour as the hooter sounded, but it had been far from one-way traffic. Leeds defender Alice Smith was a constant thorn in the side of the Grangetown attack, and Annie James, who played at goal attack for the opening thirty minutes, was both composed and accurate under the net.
Katie Walton and Brie Grierson were introduced for the second half, but it was the visitors who made the best start, scoring six unanswered goals. Grangetown maintained the defensive pressure, but Leeds played with patience and no little assurance, and it was a relief when Ash finally got Grangetown back on the scoreboard.
Grangetown rallied and led 41-31 at three-quarter time, but Leeds had deservedly won the period, with Georgia Pexton injecting some real pace and energy at wing attack. For Grangetown, Claudia remained prominent at wing defence, but the highlight of the quarter was Katie Walton’s tremendous mid-air interception, which led to Ash converting the subsequent scoring opportunity.
Leeds kept battling throughout the final quarter, narrowing the gap to just six goals at one stage, but the result was realistically never in doubt, and the 10-goal advantage had been restored by the time the final hooter sounded; the scoreboard reading 54-44.
After the game, there was a sense that the victory wasn’t as emphatic as it could or should have been. It says a lot for how far this Grangetown squad has progressed that a Prem 1 victory can be tinged with a hint of disappointment. Credit should also be given to Leeds, who were arguably the better side in the second half.
The fact is that after nine matches in the top flight of English club netball, Grangetown now have five wins. This is an outstanding achievement for Vicky Rees and her squad, who have not only gone a long way to guaranteeing their top-flight status for next season, but have played some brilliant netball along the way, and even taken the opportunity to allow several of the club’s most talented youngsters to showcase their talents against some of the best players in the country.
For the record, my Player of the Match was Claudia Heath, who produced her best Grangetown performance against her former club, with the official award going to Gen Slater for a fine game at the heart of the home defence.
Grangetown played host to the reigning champions and unbeaten league leaders Oldham in round 8 of the Prem 1 season.
The Grangetown squad had produced several outstanding performances to win four of their opening seven fixtures, results which had taken the club to fourth position in the table; but Oldham represented Grangetown’s biggest challenge since gaining promotion to the top flight of English club netball.
The visiting squad was full of players with Super League experience, including Taylor Cullen, who will be linking up with Grangetown’s Ash Neal and Brie Grierson at London Pulse; and Laura Malcolm, the former England international, who has re-joined Manchester Thunder from Severn Stars, but who has also visited Grangetown on a couple of recent occasions to run coaching sessions for the club’s youngsters.
In contrast, the home side were without Ireland defender Genevieve Slater, as well as their three Super League players, Ash, Brie, and new Loughborough Lightning recruit, Tuaine Keenan.
“We have three home games in a row,” explained Head Coach Gel Williams, “but our home matches are effectively away fixtures for these three girls. Of course, they’ve been instrumental in us having such an amazing start to the season, but their Super League commitments are only going to increase, and I have to make sure that the other members of the squad have a chance to show what they can do at this level. And how often will they be able to go out on court against the best team in the country?”
Harriet Baxter and Erin Peters were brought into the Prem 1 squad for the first time, Harriet having been a regular member of the squad that gained promotion, and Erin earning her place after making her debut for Ireland in the recent friendly against Scotland A.
The starting sevens were as follows:
Katie Walton GK Kerry Almond
Jenny Mrozik GD Abby Tyrrell
Claudia Heath WD Laura Malcolm
Vicky Rees C Maria McAndrew
Ria Small WA Amelia Hall
Abbie Le Brocq GA Kathryn Turner
Alice Currie GS Amy Clinton
The opening six goals were shared, Kerry Almond claiming the first of a number of interceptions for the visitors, and Alice Currie showing commendable strength to gather and convert two rebounds.
An excellent read from Laura Malcolm saw her pick off a pass and feed Maria McAndrew, who looped the ball to Amy Clinton for an important goal against the Grangetown centre pass.
Both sides were making mistakes and there were four turnovers before the next goal was scored by Kathryn Turner. Vicky Rees sent a lovely pass into the circle, but the shot was unsuccessful; and Maria immediately set up Amy to punish the home side for the miss.
Maria and Amy then exchanged four short quick passes, before the tall left-handed shooter netted again, but at the other end Alice showed great strength under pressure to hold onto possession and score with a looping shot.
Kerry’s second interception of the quarter set up another Oldham attack. The visitors were playing with pace and width and inside the circle, both shooters looked assured. The resulting goal made it 6-11, and two passes later it was 6-12, as Oldham began to take control of the game.
Twice Ria Small found Alice to score, but Laura brilliantly palmed down Ria’s next pass to secure a turnover. Jenny Mrozik was unlucky to be penalised for an almost identical play, but Kathryn took full advantage to further extend Oldham’s lead, which was eight goals at the end of the first quarter.
Both sides made changes, with Hannah Raine being introduced for Grangetown, and Taylor Cullen coming onto court for Oldham.
An Oldham defender tapped the ball out of play under no pressure, but from the restart, the shot was missed, Oldham regathered the ball and a nice take from Amy saw the visitors score the second of what would be eight unanswered goals.
The pace of Oldham’s transitions down court was visibly increasing and, well as Grangetown were defending, the visiting attack, marshalled by Laura and Maria was irresistible at times. It took a nicely delayed pass from Abbie Le Brocq to Alice to finally get Grangetown on the scoreboard in the second quarter, but more great work from Kerry, who intercepted a sideline pass, helped to set up another opportunity.
Grangetown’s attackers were working really hard to try and create space, whereas Laura was prominent in much of Oldham’s best work; another interception followed by a nonchalant overhead pass were touches of real class.
Kerry and Taylor both got a hand to passes, but the ball twice bounced back to Grangetown. Cathy Hewitt (who had replaced Abbie) netted, but the goal was cancelled out in a matter of seconds as Laura’s pass found Amy totally free under the net.
Claudia Heath looked to have claimed a great intercept, but play was brought back for a penalty to the visitors. The hooter sounded, with the scoreboard reading 17-34 in favour of a visiting side who had combined relentless defensive pressure with fluid, exciting attacking play.
The result was already beyond doubt, but Oldham were in no mood to relax, and opened the second half with twelve successive goals. One passage of play seemed to sum up this period of the game. Jenny Mrozik did well to complete a turnover, only for the ball to be lost in mid-court. Hannah Raine reclaimed possession, but Oldham immediately intercepted, and the goal almost inevitably followed.
Kerry’s excellent game at goal keeper continued as she pressured Cathy Hewitt into passing when a shot looked possible; the intention was read, the pass intercepted, and Oldham were back on the attack.
Offensively, Ria and Alice had been Grangetown’s best combination and they brought a halt to Oldham’s run of goals. Claudia was again unfortunate when another interception was denied by the umpire’s whistle; this time for a replayed ball. However, Grangetown did score next, as Ria fed Nicole Molloy, who delayed her looped pass just long enough for the defender to commit, leaving Alice with a straightforward shot from under the net.
An overarm pass from Ria to Alice took Grangetown to 20, although by then, the visitors had already passed their half century.
At the opposite end of the court, Amy didn’t even set her next shot, just lobbed it in one-handed. Alice replied, and Nicole’s shot gave Grangetown a rare goal against the Oldham centre pass.
Despite the game being over as a contest, there was plenty of commitment from both sides. In fact, the game occasionally became quite physical; Vicky was pushed, potentially dangerously, whilst in mid-air; and moments later, Hannah was barged off the ball – both incidents going unpunished.
There was just time for Nicole to net twice before the end of the period; the first goal was nicely taken after Abby Tyrrell, who had been excellent at goal defence, moved to her right anticipating a pass across the circle. In that moment, Nicole chose to shoot and although the shot was rushed, it found the net.
Harriet Baxter was brought on for the final fifteen minutes, and her first involvement was to collect a long pass and feed the returning Abbie Le Brocq to score. Unfortunately, by that time, Oldham had already added seven more goals to their total.
The visitors took the opportunity to try a number of different combinations, all of which looked to be effective. Certainly, the changes didn’t affect the pace of the game, but to Grangetown’s credit, they stuck to their task, with the experienced mid-court duo of Ria and Vicky setting a fine example. In fact, it was Vicky who turned over possession by getting a hand to an Oldham pass; Abbie converted, and netted again with a long-range effort soon after.
Laura had returned for Oldham at wing attack, her third different position, and she got a strong hand to a pass at marker to secure the ball. Amy netted – two handed this time, after her previous one-handed effort had bounced away off the ring.
Emily Whitehead played the second half at centre for the visitors and she showed great awareness to flick the ball to Amelia Hall, who feinted to shoot before feeding Amy who netted. Emily’s next contribution was a long pass down the right, which was well-taken by Laura, who instantly passed inside to Amy, whose shooting accuracy remained of the highest standard throughout.
There was just time for Erin Peters to make her Grangetown Prem 1 debut … although she was handed the unenviable task of playing against Laura Malcolm for the game’s closing minutes.
The final score was 35-76 in favour of the league leaders. They are obviously a fine side, and even though they were rarely tested by a Grangetown squad that remains inexperienced at this level, Oldham didn’t let their standards drop, and when you have players as good as Emily Whitehead and Taylor Cullen starting on the bench, you are going to give any side the sternest of challenges.
For Grangetown, the size of the defeat might be disappointing, but it was a great opportunity for the younger players to test themselves against the best that English club netball has to offer; and the coaching team will have learned a lot from the game as well. The fact remains that the aim of this season is to retain Prem 1 status, and very few would have predicted a 50%-win ratio after the first eight games.
Grangetown’s official player of the match was Alice Currie, although my vote went to Ria Small. For Oldham, Laura Malcolm was pure class, Maria McAndrew had a brilliant first half, and both shooters were superb. However, for her reading of the game and consistent ability to turnover possession, my choice for overall player of the match would be Kerry Almond.
Grangetown Netball Club won a thrilling encounter with Turnford in their round 7 Prem 1 clash; the fourth victory from their opening seven fixtures in the top flight of English club netball.
Turnford had travelled up from their Hertfordshire base with an identical record to Grangetown, the teams being separated only on goal average. The game also paired the two clubs who had been promoted from Prem 2 last season, and just as there was little to separate the teams on paper, so it proved out on court.
Grangetown were at full strength, with Gen Slater and Katie Walton having been on international duty for Ireland in last weekend’s friendly against Scotland A. Former Team Northumbria Super League players Ash Neal and Tuaine Keenan found themselves facing a former colleague, as Chiara Semple took her place in Turnford’s starting seven. Chiara will link up with Ash and Grangetown’s Brie Grierson for the 2019 Super League season, as all three are members of the recently-announced London Pulse squad.
Turnford were without England international George Fisher, and the injured Ellie Kelk, but they still fielded a talented squad including a number of England age group internationals and current Super League players. The starting line-ups were as follows:
Tuaine Keenan GK Sarah Davis
Genevieve Slater GD Zara Everitt
Vicky Rees WD Ellie Rattu
Ria Small C Kat Whittall
Brie Grierson WA Emily Gulvin
Ash Neal GA Chiara Semple
Abbie Le Brocq GD Nat Richardson
Grangetown edged the first quarter 14-12, although it was a tight fifteen minutes, with neither side able to gain a significant advantage. Grangetown started the better, but a 3-0 lead was quickly cancelled out by the visitors. Ash Neal then delivered a beautifully concealed pass to her shooting partner Abbie Le Brocq, who calmly found the net.
Great interplay between Brie Grierson and Abbie resulted in a clever feed to the onrushing Ash. The goal doubled the advantage, but a great read from Zara Everitt allowed Kat Whittall to collect the loose ball and with Chiara Semple looking assured in the circle, Turnford not only levelled proceedings, but took a two-goal lead of their own; the best piece of play involving Emily Gulvin, who moved right and passed left to leave Nat Richardson the easiest of chances, which was duly converted.
Ash and Brie then both showed great skill to feed Abbie for two quick goals. The first saw Ash collected the ball at pace and cleverly delay the looped pass until the defence had committed; then Brie faked a pass to Ash, which drew both Turnford defenders, leaving Abbie totally unmarked.
Nothing elaborate about the move that helped Grangetown retake the lead though, as Brie drilled a pass to her London Pulse team mate for Ash to find the net.
Tuaine Keenan’s excellent opening quarter was rounded off by a brilliant interception as a shot was being taken; but Grangetown were unable to take advantage. However, Ria Small linked up well with the attack to provide another opportunity, which Ash comfortably converted; and Abbie was on hand to finish off a brilliant passage of play to give the home side a two-goal lead on the hooter.
The second period began with yet another fine intervention from Tuaine, but again her efforts were not rewarded at the opposite end of the court. The teams traded early goals before Grangetown were fortuitously awarded an off-the-ball penalty just as they looked to have lost possession. Ash made no mistake and her next goal extended the advantage to four.
Ellie Rattu had already picked off one poor pass, then came close to intercepting a Grangetown centre pass as Turnford maintained strong defensive pressure; but a bad miss from under the post was the catalyst for a four-goal burst from Grangetown, which took the score to 25-17.
At the heart of the home defence, Tuaine and Gen Slater were working well together and claimed two crucial turnovers, but just as Grangetown looked to have gained the ascendancy, momentum suddenly swung back in favour of the visitors.
The introduction of the rather inappropriately-named Katarina Short had an immediate impact on the game, as the 6’5” shooter provided the perfect target for the Turnford attackers. The long-looped pass was very much in evidence, as Katarina’s goals began to eat into Grangetown’s lead. Great work from Ellie Rattu and Sarah Davis enabled the visitors to have enough possession to trail by just three goals at half time.
Interestingly however, despite Turnford’s late spell of dominance, Grangetown actually won the quarter by one goal. It had been an absorbing 30 minutes of high-quality netball and with the sides so evenly matched, the importance of the three-goal cushion couldn’t be underestimated.
Katie Walton replaced her Ireland team mate Gen Slater, with Tuaine moving to goal defence. There was a straight swap at goal shooter with Abbie making way from Alice Currie, for whom the game marked her home debut; and Claudia Heath came on at wing defence in place of Vicky Rees.
Whilst Grangetown’s Super League pairing of Ash and Brie often grab the headlines, the performances of Vicky and Ria in the middle of the court have been outstanding, and, after years of service to the club, both are arguably playing the best netball of their respective careers.
The break seemed to have a positive effect on Grangetown, as they scored the third quarter’s opening four goals – Katie and Alice both making an instant impact at opposite ends of the court.
However, yet another interception by Tuaine went frustratingly unrewarded as Turnford rallied with five unanswered goals of their own; but just as it looked like the margin would be down to a single goal, Turnford lost possession when the ball was deemed to have gone out of court. It looked a harsh call, but Grangetown quickly took advantage and with Alice and Ash both looking very composed in the circle, the home side quickly extended their advantage to seven.
The tactic of looping the ball into Katarina looked obvious, but when executed well, it was very hard to defend, and the visitors were finding it comparatively easy to convert from their centre passes. Likewise, Grangetown were cancelling out each Turnford goal, with Alice doing really well to flick the ball back to Ash when she was overbalancing and falling out of play.
It felt like it was a case of who would blink first and when a wayward Grangetown pass was collected by Emily Gulvin, that provided the spark for the visitors to seize the initiative, and by the end of another pulsating quarter in which 35 goals were scored, Turnford trailed by just two goals and the stage was set for an enthralling finale.
The pattern of much of the previous quarter continued as the two sides shared the first ten goals of the last quarter. Katie Walton completed an excellent turnover, which Ash converted to score against the Turnford centre pass, only for the visitors to immediately hit back from the Grangetown restart.
There were arguably two turning points: firstly, a whistle that looked likely to penalise Grangetown for a three-second violation was actually for an off-the-ball offence against the Turnford defence; and secondly, as the visitors battled to close the gap, a misplaced pass flew out of court to hand Grangetown a crucial turnover.
The home shooters took every chance that came their way, and hard as Turnford battled, Grangetown were relentless, and the final score was 62-53 in favour of last season’s Prem 2 champions.
Grangetown were superb, but if the winning margin suggests a comfortable victory, the reality is that Turnford provided a stern test, and the result was in doubt right until the final few minutes. The result was enough to lift Grangetown back into fourth position, with Viper 10 Blades loss to unbeaten Oldham (who visit Grangetown in round 8 on 2 December).
Abbie Le Brocq was the official Player of the Match, but my votes would have gone to Grangetown’s Tuaine Keenan for a fine performance at the heart of the defence, and Turnford wing attack Emily Gulvin.