It was tense, it was gripping, it was unpredictable. It had everything a final should have. And best of all, it saw Manchester Thunder crowned the 2019 Netball Superleague Champions.
It was a shaky start for the Black and Yellows, and they kept us waiting until the dying moments to seal the deal. Wasps were classy and showed all the composure of the reigning champions. The score swung from Wasps to Thunder, back to Wasps and back again. Until eventually it landed safely in the hands of the Black and Yellows, who carried it over the line, willed on by the travelling Thunder Family.
Thunder started poorly, losing possession on the first centre pass and falling behind by four goals, before Kathryn Turner opened the shooting with three minutes played. Thunder were, at times, wasteful in possession and strived to force the turnover, only to lose the ball moments later thanks to a loose pass or error. Wasps took no prisoners and punished Thunder for their mistakes, taking a five goal lead heading in for the first break.
The physical battles emerged quickly, and the tone was set for the rest of the game. Emma Dovey and Rachel Dunn were at war, Dovey digging her heels in and standing up to the tenacious shooter. Alongside Kerry Almond, the defensive duo were ruthless and despite some gutsy defending, Thunder didn’t see enough of the ball to challenge Wasps’ lead.
There were moments of brilliance from Liana Leota, who was named in the Superleague All Star Seven this week, sneaky passes to Joyce Mvula and tricky dummies to throw off Wasps’ defence. Thunder were down, but most certainly not out.
The second quarter saw the beginnings of a comeback. Even in these early stages of the game, allowing Wasps to draw out a lead would be dangerous, and Thunder were determined to prevent that from happening. The moment came when Wasps’ Amy Flanagan sent a pass straight into the hands of Caroline O’Hanlon, who swiftly sent it to Thunder’s eagerly waiting attackers. Moments later, Dovey was on hand with a second crucial interception, and just like that, the tables had turned.
A tip from Turner in the middle of the court and two cheeky feeds into the D from Leota were enough to give Thunder the chance to take the lead. Both shooters performed impeccably, completely unphased by Wasps’ continued defiance against them. Even from range, Turner shot with confidence and composure, no mean feat in front of a packed out Copperbox crowd. Thunder entered the second half two goals to the good, and the fight was on to maintain the lead.
The third quarter was going to be a tricky one for Thunder to navigate. As we know, two goals is a difficult lead to hold onto, particularly against a drilled Wasps side who ground Thunder down on several occasions, only for them to come back to life seconds later.
Both sides were unable to break the deadlock, and it went goal for goal for several minutes. Regardless of your allegiance, this was a proper final, two teams face to face for one to be crowned the best, a fantastic showcase of our sport. Wasps got the better of Thunder eventually, a couple of contact calls went against them and that was enough for Wasps to consolidate a lead once again.
Mistakes from Thunder began to trickle in, and just like the first quarter, Thunder worked hard to turnover ball but were unable to keep hold of it. Thunder were patient yet decisive in intercepting the ball, but passed it into the wrong hands seconds later. Frustrations were clear as Almond screamed at her team, willing them to take charge. Wasps went into the final quarter with a six goal lead, not an impossible task, but a tough one.
Head Coach Karen Greig was determined to stick to her strategy, and left the side unchanged from the original starting seven heading into the last 15 minutes. Despite the six goal deficit, it never felt lost. It always felt that Thunder had something left in the tank to be able to turn the tables once again. With the confidence of last week’s semi-final against Team Bath, and the knowledge that they had done the double over Wasps in the League, it was going down to the wire.
Thunder had recovered the six goals within minutes and drew level with nine minutes left to play. Suddenly, it was on. The atmosphere changed as the momentum was with Thunder, and the trophy was in touching distance. But things took a turn for the worse when Mvula fell to the floor and didn’t look like getting up again. She hobbled off with a suspected knee injury, passing the mantle, and the pressure, to Eleonar Cardwell.
Cardwell had to make her mark immediately, by taking the penalty shot in Mvula’s place. She sunk the shot as the crowd breathed a sigh of relief, and that was beginning of the end for Wasps. Thunder were ferocious in defence, turning over ball and exhausting Wasps with their relentless punishments in attack. All eyes were firmly on the prize and Cardwell’s short appearance was flawless.
Thunder perhaps played their best netball in the final five minutes, ruthless, dogged and tenacious, they took a three goal lead with five minutes to go, and by that point it seemed like it was over. Five minutes can be a long time in a game of netball, but as the crowd held their breath, Thunder held their nerve. Cardwell slotted in the last goal of the game to make the tally 57 and the final buzzer sounded.
Manchester Thunder, Superleague Champions 2019.
An incredible game of netball to round off an equally incredible season. We could go on and on about special moments, stand out performances, and the sheer tenacity of this team to never give up. But in the end, all that mattered was that Thunder did it when it mattered most. They proved that experience, determination and sheer team work can bring results.
In fact, it can bring the greatest result of them all.
Photo credit: Eliza Morgan & Ben Lumley
Thunder: Mvula, Turner, Leota, O’Hanlon, Malcolm, Dovey, Almond
Wasps: Dunn, Harris, Msomi, Clarke, Flanagan, Williams, Knights
Player of the Match: Emma Dovey