The reigning champions may remain unbeaten but this was a poor first half performance and they will need to improve significantly if they are to see that record through and defend their title. But head coach Tracey Neville will be happy to see her whole squad take to the court as the season steam-rolls towards a mouth-watering climax. With one eye already on the their semi final at the Manchester Arena, Thunder struggled to focus in the opening phases of the game and Dragons matched them goal-for-goal.
It also may well have been the delayed start that unsettled the Black and Yellows, after a dispute over the height of the posts pushed back the start of the game by 15 minutes. The away side started sloppily but their work-rate forced mistakes from Dragons in what was an open first 10 minutes.
Jodie Gibson made the most of her place in the starting line-up and kept her marking tight.
Dragons were showing their recent good form by keeping their own score ticking over while hoping to capitalise on errors from an off-colour Thunder.
Neville’s words must have been ringing in her players’ ears as Thunder came out with renewed intensity in the second quarter.
In-form Thunder keeper Almond replaced Gibson and produced an athletic intercept seconds after coming on.
Court time has been scarce for Travis this season but she showed no signs of rust to net some difficult chances in a second quarter that Thunder dominated for large periods. A scrappy period of play ended with some clinical shooting from Travis.
Almond, who was the real difference between the sides, made a string of intercepts and her efforts were rewarded with some positive work in the shooting third. Georgie Webster at goal defence started to click with Almond and took the keeper’s lead by producing some important intercepts of her own.
Thunder started to click through the gears in the third quarter and dominated possession, playing patient netball in the centre court.
Aussie Chelsea Pitman, who has been suffering from a nasty cold, had grown into the game and her twinkle-toe footwork was the highlight of a flat passage of play. Dragons shooter Chelsea Lewis – the hero when her side grabbed a last-second win over Loughborough in round eight to win their first match of the season in round eight – was miss-firing for her side’s last home game of the season.
And Thunder’s defence was in no mood to make life any easier for the Welsh shooter as they suffocated her movement and restricted feed options.
Thunder’s attacking play became more fluid as the game headed into the final stages, with some pin-point bullet feeds from Bayman and Pitman into Travis doing the talking around the shooting circle. The momentum didn’t falter despite a number of changes, including the introduction of a consistent Beth Cobden at wing defence and Eleanor Cardwell at goal attack.
Thunder played out the final quarter with little resistance from their tiring hosts to record a useful 29-57 and next face Team Northumbria at the Thunderdome for their penultimate game of the regular season.
Post match quotes:
Thunder player of the match, Georgie Webster, said: “It was a nice surprise to get player of the match for the first time this season.
“There’s really good competition for places at the minute, we’ve got a good solid unit in defence.
“I think I took my opportunity today.
“We are building on four years working together and Emma (Dovey) and Kerry (Almond) have been working together for six tears so this isn’t something that has just happened.
“It makes a difference when people get interceptions but with Kerry she plays a steady game and she lifted us after we had a bad first half.
“The first half was flat and we didn’t adapt to the delayed start time either.
“Dragons started well and we expected a different performance from then compared to the one they put out against us at the Thunderdome.
“I think they’ve been lifted by some good results and they just want to finish the season off well and credit to them as it is hard to keep your motivation when you are not in the top four.
“We dominated the second half and Tracey wants us to put out a good individual performances.
“The attack were looking really strong in the second half and dominating the Dragons defence, we didn’t do that at the start and we got into our stride.”
Thunder starting seven: Thunder starting: GK Gibson, GD, Webster, WD Malcolm, C Bayman, WA Pitman, GA Turner, GS Enziano
Bench: Almond, Dovey, Cobden, Cardwell