One of the first skills fledging netball players have to master is the pivot: a seamless swivel on the ball or heel of the foot to change position. Perfecting this awkward-to-the-untrained-eye art, without breaking the stepping rule, is a netball fundamental. It is fitting then, that in a year unlike any other, the world’s best netball league has had to metaphorically pivot numerous times to even get a season off the ground.
Against all the odds following the Covid-19 outbreak – which has seen borders closed, players temporarily caught overseas, intra-state quarantine rules changed, testing requirements introduced and a condensed season drawn up after twice being revised – the fourth Super Netball season, which was meant to start in May, begins in Queensland on Saturday. It comes after a multi-million-dollar olive branch from Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government to host the league.
As the game’s athletes prepare to take to the court, league and club administrations, venue managers, players, coaches, umpires, fans, commercial affiliates and broadcast partners have had to be fleet of foot and nimble, without the vast financial resources of other major sports leagues.
The shifting circumstances prompted that landmark deal to be done with Queensland, after the Melbourne Vixens and Collingwood Magpies fled coronavirus-ravaged Victoria just in time to quarantine in the sunshine state, and a plan to host games across the opening two rounds in Sydney was canned after Queensland declared the NSW capital a Covid-19 hot spot.
With plans, flights, the draw and broadcast schedule changed in a matter of hours, all eight teams will now play their round one fixtures at Brisbane’s Nissan Arena this weekend, where the competition’s three derbies – Firebirds v Lightning, Giants v Swifts and Vixens v Magpies – will be contested. Details of subsequent rounds are yet to be confirmed.
Commentator and West Coast Fever specialist coach Sue Gaudion said the fact there is even a season speaks to the maturity of the sport and its place in Australian society.
“I’m bloody proud our sport hasn’t drowned though all this, that we’re about to have a season and it’s going to be on TV … that financially, we can make it happen. Through this tumultuous time, a high percentage of people thought this would never happen,” Gaudion said.
“When push has come to shove, netball has been able to hold the line for women’s sport and there’s clearly a level of respect for us. The exceptional relationships netball has with government has really come to the fore too.”
Gaudion expects a “burst of energy like maybe we’ve never seen before” when the first whistle finally blows at 1pm on Saturday. “From an insider’s perspective at the Fever, the girls are up and about and extraordinarily excited to get out there and they’re as fit as they’ve ever been. My expectation is that the uncertainly of these preceding weeks will be wiped away pretty quick.”
How long that vitality remains across what will no doubt be a gruelling season is the big question, and Gaudion expects to see ebbs and flows, like in other codes. But she dismissed concerns about potential injury and burnout caused by the condensed format, which will see sides play multiple games a week.
“An enormous spotlight goes onto the coaching staff on how they manage their environment, their players, their match day, which is really exciting,” she said.
Coaches also have to handle two new rules in 2020: the controversial two-point shot in the last five minutes of each quarter and rolling substitutions.
“It’s not a long shot, it’s mid-range and every club has at least one shooter it suits. Steph Wood (Lightning), Helen Housby (Swifts), Tegan Philip (Vixens) and Jo Harten (Giants) all have the experience and capacity to do some damage in those minutes. But who is to say we won’t see a rookie come on, with no pressure on their shoulders, and shoot the lights out, like we saw Amy Sommerville do for the Firebirds last season?”
As for who is best placed to win the league, it is impossible for Gaudion to go past the Lightning, a side which has been quietly preparing at home on the Sunshine Coast for months.
“They have the creature comforts of home, home crowds, a quality list that’s barely changed, a new coach in the strategic Kylee Byrne and they’re the most successful team in the league. To think they wouldn’t be there on grand final day would be a shock, especially because they fell well short in the grand final last year.”
The Vixens – who talk about loving being on the road – should also feature at the business end given their quality list, but perhaps in this year of disruption and uncertainty, the team that emerges on top will just be who is able to pivot best.