After ten fixtures, Grangetown were placed third in a very competitive division, having won seven games. In contrast, Sussex, who were promoted as Division 3 champions last season, occupied ninth position, with their only two victories coming against Ryland, and bottom-placed Chester, the only team yet to record a win so far this season.
When the sides met back in October, Grangetown returned from Sussex with a hard-fought and narrow 45-41 success, so despite being separated by seven places and 21 points in the table, the visitors were still expected to pose a serious challenge.
Grangetown were without Jenny Mrozik, but their Ireland defenders Genevieve Slater and Katie Walton were joined by a third current international as Scotland’s Hayley Mulheron made her first appearance for the club since the 2015/16 season, having recently been part of the Scottish Thistles squad that secured their place in the 2019 World Cup through the regional qualifiers.
Katie Walton GK Tish Biddolph
Hayley Mulheron GD Rebecca Miller
Gen Slater WD Ellen Franks
Vicky Rees C Beth Franks
Ria Small WA Chloe Spong
Ash Neal GA Sophie Jackson
Abbie LeBrocq GS Tess Waterfall
It was the visitors who made the brighter start, scoring from their opening possession. Katie Walton made an early interception, only for Beth Franks to win back the ball and set up an easy chance for Tess Waterfall.
A contact penalty on the tall Sussex shooter then enabled Vicky Rees and Ash Neal to exchange passes for the Team Northumbria goal attack to halve the arrears, and the pair then combined again to level the scores.
The next four goals were shared, with both sides making a number of errors, before Thunder moved into a three-goal lead. Firstly, Tess cleverly flicked a shot rebound to her attacking partner Sophie Jackson. Tess then plucked a high pass out of the air to score, before some great work from Chloe Spong reclaimed possession and created another chance that was successfully converted.
Tish Biddolph was unfortunate not to complete an interception, and Ash scored from the resulting restart. At the opposite end of the court, Tess used all of her 6’ 4” height and skill to gather a high ball and draw a contact penalty to maintain the three-goal advantage.
Grangetown replied with two quick goals, but then conceded an attacking penalty and despite intense pressure from both Grangetown defenders, Sophie was able to find the net. A lightning quick interception from Katie turned over possession and lovely interplay from Vicky and Ria Small set up Abbie le Brocq. Moments later Abbie scored with a perfectly flighted long shot, and once again the scores were tied.
Hayley Mulheron claimed a rebound, followed by an excellent interception and the home side edged in front for the first time, although Thunder were rather unlucky when the umpire blew her whistle seemingly for a foul on a Sussex player, only for Grangetown to be given possession from the restart after the ball bounced out of play.
Abbie found the net to make it 12-10; both sides then scored a goal apiece, but the advantage at quarter time was just one goal as Tess scored with the last play of the period.
Grangetown made a couple of changes during the interval, with Kate Hill coming on at centre, and Vicky replacing Gen Slater at wing defence.
Sophie Jackson brought parity to proceedings in the opening moments of the second period, however the next three goals all came from Grangetown. Hayley and Kate combined for Abbie to score, then Hayley’s superb catch set up some neat interplay between Ria and Ash Neal – Abbie once again finishing the move. The home side then took advantage of a Sussex miss to work the ball down court and Abbie scored at the second attempt.
Sophie’s next goal was cancelled out by a long effort from Ash, but Sophie duly responded with a successful shot from even longer-range. Abbie showed great strength under pressure from Rebecca Miller and, although Thunder replied, Ash ignored a shooting opportunity and flicked a clever pass to her left for her better-placed partner Abbie to find the net.
Sophie and Beth Franks then produced some excellent play to open up the Grangetown defence for Tess to bring the visitors back to within two goals; but that would be the closest Thunder came to catching their hosts.
Abbie scored twice, the second goal coming after a replayed ball penalty against the visitors. Importantly, that goal came against the Sussex centre pass, and when Ash floated the ball into the net after impressive interplay with Kate Hill, the advantage was now five.
Ash drilled a pass to Abbie, which was brilliantly taken, and the subsequent goal was the fourth in another unanswered spell. Grangetown were in sublime form; their attacking play was fluent and Sussex were being pressured right across the court whenever they had possession.
Another well-taken shot from Sophie Jackson made the score 28-20, but the next seven goals all went the way of the home side. The second of those goals saw Ria and Ash combine superbly to feed Abbie; Katie then picked off a Sussex pass, and Ria fired a ball right through the defence to find Abbie completely unmarked under the net.
A footwork call handed possession back to Grangetown, and even though some of the shooting was falling just short, all the rebounds were going the way of the home side, and Grangetown were in total command. The half-time hooter sounded, with Grangetown 14 goals in front, after having won the quarter 22-9.
Sussex introduced Kim Cook at wing defence and also made a change at centre, but unsurprisingly, Grangetown stuck with the same seven who had produced such an excellent period of netball.
To their credit, Sussex did make early inroads into the Grangetown lead, reducing the gap to eleven goals at one stage. One of the main features of the visitor’s play was the shooting of Sophie Jackson, who seemed to be able to find the net at will from almost any distance. However, the highlight of the opening few minutes of the third period came from Grangetown’s Kate Hill, who fired a delightful pass inside the Thunder defence for the onrushing Ash Neal, who caught the ball and calmly found the net.
Hayley, Ria and Vicky all played a part in turning over possession in mid-court, however the resulting shot from Abbie bounced off the ring of the net and was collected by the Thunder defence. A rare miss from Sophie turned into a perfect pass for Tess to score, but after Abbie had cancelled out the goal, Hayley got a decisive hand to the Sussex centre pass and her efforts were rewarded when Abbie converted the ensuing shot.
Another defence-splitting pass, this time from Ria Small, enabled Ash Neal to maintain Grangetown’s sizeable lead, and scorer turned provider as Ash found Abbie totally unmarked as the home side’s attacking movement attracted the attention of both defenders.
During a brief stoppage, Tess Waterfall was replaced by Lauren Pedelty, whilst Grangetown took the opportunity to bring on Tasha Grylls at wing attack. Lauren’s first involvement was a successful shot, but Thunder’s next attack saw Hayley block Sophie’s attempt, with Katie Walton grabbing the rebound. The ball found its way to Abbie who scored from long range.
Kim Cook did well to nudge the ball out of play, as Grangetown mounted another attack, but from the restart Abbie once again netted from distance. Thunder’s next goal came from Lauren, another from long-range, but Abbie repaid the compliment with the last short of the quarter; a fine goal that saw Grangetown reach their half century.
50-34 to the good, Grangetown shuffled their pack for the final period; Gen Slater returning to the court in place of Hayley Mulheron, Harriet Baxter coming on at goal shooter and Ria replacing Kate Hill, who had played particularly well at centre.
Beth Franks went back to centre for the visitors and immediately produced an excellent interception. Sussex were unable to make the most of the possession though, and Grangetown rattled off five quick goals to give them a lead of twenty – a figure that no one would have imagined possible after such a hard-fought opening quarter.
Rebecca Miller’s excellent interception came to nothing as possession was lost inside the Sussex half, and Harriet Baxter opened her account at the first attempt after collecting a rebound. Tasha Grylls then produced a lovely pass to find Harriet free under the net, but in a game which had seen some excellent shooting from distance, Lauren Pedelty was desperately unlucky to see a shot from right on the edge of the circle ruled out for an infringement.
By this stage the result was not in doubt, but Grangetown refused to relax their defensive pressure and some great work from forced Sussex into a long shot that was safely collected by Gen Slater. The ball went straight down the other end and Tasha fed Ash for another score.
The home side kept up the momentum right through until the end of the game and at full time, the score was 67-40 in Grangetown’s favour. There were excellent performances all over the court, with Sussex picking Ash Neal as their player of the match, and Vicky Rees picking up the award from the competition sponsors Mizuno. For good measure, I thought Ria Small was the best player on court, but in a fine team performance, Kate Hill also deserves a mention for her display at centre in the middle quarters of the game.
For their part, Sussex certainly didn’t look like a side languishing towards the bottom of the division during an opening period in which they more than matched their hosts. For me, their best player was Sophie Jackson whose link up play with Tess Waterfall during the first quarter was fantastic, as was her shooting throughout the whole game. However, as the match progressed, the strength and energy of the Grangetown defence really stifled Thunder’s attacking options in what was a fine performance and an important win for the home side.