Tamsin Greenway takes a closer look at the race for the final play-off place in the Vitality Netball Superleague and runs the rule over the four teams that are still in contention to secure it.
As we head into the final two rounds of the regular season, Wasps, Leeds Rhinos Netball, Strathclyde Sirens and Saracens Mavericks are all still jostling for fourth position.
There are just three points separating Wasps in fourth and Mavericks in seventh, and with all of the teams having differing numbers of games left, the contest could potentially go down to the final round.
On Sunday, Wasps will play their last game of the regular season. Dan Ryan’s Rhinos have a bye weekend, Sirens play one of their two remaining games and Mavericks start their run of three matches.
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Vitality Netball Superleague – Round 19
It’s the first time since 2016 that we’re likely to have a different top four in the semi-finals, which is so important for the game. Seeing the emergence of Rhinos and Sirens this season, it has not only lifted the standard of the competition, but also paved the way for other teams to believe that they can do the same too.
At the start of the year, I believed Wasps would gain that fourth spot. However, they weren’t able to stamp their authority when they really needed to, and their Round 18 defeat to Mavericks could prove to be incredibly costly, especially as they were back in the driving seat.
Having been in the lead for the majority of the match against Mavericks, Wasps didn’t see the game off during the crucial moments and I think that has been the story of their season. Alongside this, they have also been unlucky with injuries and replacements; losing two starting players in the same positions is difficult for any team to recover from.
Vitality Netball Superleague’s race for the top four
With just one game left against Surrey Storm, a match Wasps should win, it’s left them in a very difficult position, as they need to rely on others around them to slip up. That’s why I don’t think Wasps will get there and secure fourth place.
The most important thing now for the two-time champions will be what they learn and what they take forwards. They’ve got some incredible players, but I think their campaign this year, shows just how important an on-court attacking leader is within your team.
If you look at the top of the table, then the likes of Nat Panagarry and Serena Guthrie are the individuals who drag the team through when all else is failing. Wasps losing their captain created another hole for them to fill.
I think they’ll spend the off-season thinking about that on-court leadership; the players that they’ve already got who can step up, and who else they need to get in to make it happen next year.
One point behind Wasps in the table are the competition’s newest franchise, Leeds Rhinos Netball.
Firstly, the determination that they showed to overcome the three key injuries early on in the season, to even be in this position, is impressive. From the outset, Dan Ryan has developed a style for them and a structure which ensures that he can get the most out of every member of his squad.
In defence, the unit of Vicki Oyesola, Emily Hollingworth, Fi Toner and Jade Clarke have all stuck to their head coach’s plan. The way in which they hustle and track their opponents has paid dividends and it’s enabled them to turn over much more ball than I thought they would at the start of the year.
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In attack, Rhinos have clicked. Donnell Wallam has been outstanding and the instant connection that she’s formed with both Brie Grierson and Rhea Dixon has been incredible.
If Rhinos do make the top four, which I think they will, then it will be interesting to see if they can adapt in the play-offs and really take it to their opponent as they’ve still not beaten a top-three side this year. Their discipline in defence and variety in the shooting circle will be key moving forwards.
Strathclyde Sirens, the team that so many have taken to heart this season, follow closely behind Rhinos on 29 points. They are the surprise package of the season and what has impressed me most about them is their constant development.
When you look at Sirens’ squad, they don’t necessarily have anyone that you’d label as a ‘big name’. There’s not a Mary Cholhok in the circle, a Laura Malcolm in mid-court or an Eboni Usoro-Brown within their roster. However, over the course of the year, every player has grown and owned their position and they’ve become stars in their own right.
The performances that I’ve seen from the likes of Taylor Cullen against Liana Leota and the young shooting circle of Emma Barrie and Niamh McCall standing up to the pressure from Jodie Gibson and Razia Quashie when they faced Mavericks, have been exceptional.
Towera Vinkhumbo has got to have been the signing of the season, well perhaps she comes a close second behind Donnell Wallam, but she’s up there.
Like Dan Ryan, Lesley MacDonald and Karen Atkinson have done a fantastic job at creating a structure for Sirens and it’s a structure that works for the players they have, hence their performances and impressive steps forward.
It is a big ask for them to make the top four as they face Thunder and Dragons, and then would still need to rely on Rhinos and Mavericks losing a game.
However, with Sirens finishing the season playing the type of netball that they are, it lays an incredible foundation for next. Along with the confidence they’ve gained, they’ve now got a real taste of winning, because let’s not forget that Sirens hadn’t ever won three matches in a row before this season!
Sirens will want to retain as many players as they can and then really work hard on how they can keep pushing up their attempts to goal.
Finally, there’s Mavericks, who still have three matches to play and the most amount of points to gain, but I still find it hard to put them in pole position.
On Sunday, Mavericks are facing Team Bath and then they’re up against a London Pulse side that are itching to gain another big victory, before meeting Surrey Storm.
In my opinion, the Bath match is a huge one. Yes, Mavericks were the only team to have beaten them this year, but it was by one goal – 39-38. In Round Nine, it was good from Mavericks, but it was a very bad day at the office for Anna Stembridge’s team.
At this point in the season, there’s absolutely no chance that Bath will want to let that happen again. They will know that Mavericks could still be their semi-final opponents and having been in this position myself, you’d never want to give bragging rights to an opponent going into a semi-final.
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The top four race continues… pic.twitter.com/oKdcxGBsyJ
To beat Bath, Mavericks still haven’t done enough to convince me that they’ve fixed their big problem, which is their high error rate. Although they overcame Wasps in Round 18, and deserved that victory in the end, they were losing for the majority of that contest and at times, by seven or eight goals.
Mavericks have an exceptional squad and if they click, they can produce magic on court. Whether they will do that, and do it during every game until the end of the season, remains the big question.
As the race for the play-offs reaches its final conclusion, you can’t help think, this just what the league, the fans and the sport needed… a change in order and a battle to the very end.
Sky Sports is your home of netball. The Vitality Netball Superleague continues with Round 19 on Sunday, with four matches streamed back-to-back on the Sky Sports YouTube channel from 12pm.
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