The sides traded blows for the majority of the game but Thunder were too strong for Jets in the final quarter, and made sure of the biggest win of the season over their Rose Rivals, taking it 55- 49.
Thunder had come into this play-off a wounded beast, after seeing their hopes of retaining their Superleague title ripped to shreds following a loss to Hertfordshire Mavericks seven days earlier. And to beat their derby rivals in front of a sold-out Copperbox showed guts and was a testament to the character and spirit in what is actually Superleague’s youngest squad.
Thunder head coach Tracey Neville, who will now shift her attentions to her new role as England interim boss for this summer’s Netball World Cup, said: “We came off a loss last week and corrected it today. “I’m not sure any other team could have done that like we did against Jets. We’ve won 15 out of 16 this season but lost the vital one but hopefully the players will learn from that experience and make sure that it never happens again. We didn’t prepare our players enough for the environment last week. It felt like a final and we didn’t come together as a team like we should have done. It was our best performance of the season against Jets in terms of scoreline. Today it was all about the win and we did that. Coming into the last quarter, we showed what Manchester Thunder is all about and ground out the win.”
It wasn’t an ideal start to the second half for Thunder, with a stray Helen Housby pass to Beth Cobden sailing out of court and despite Sara Bayman’s efforts on the hop, her feed into Krista Enziano was just out of the shooter’s reach. But Thunder kept plugging away, marking tight, forcing Jets into errors. A contentious umpire call went against a flabbergasted Almond in the circle and Cato sunk her attempt to keep Jets two ahead. Great work from the fresh legs of Cobden, who entered the fray to replace Chelsea Pitman at half time, led to Thunder levelling the game up minutes later. The ball fell awkwardly for Housby after some slick attacking play on Thunder’s centre and Jets took advantage, stretching to a three-goal lead.
It didn’t last long when a wonderful move, sparked by a fired-up Bayman opened up Jets’ defence and Enziano scored under the post. The Black and Yellows had the momentum and ran with it, sinking five goals on the bounce. Cobden’s hopeful feed evaded everyone in the circle and Jets raced to the other end, only to see Almond block another pass to Cato. But a loose pass from Bayman to Housby was intercepted and Jets made them pay at the second time of asking, and with it levelling the score, 39-all.
It set things up for a thrilling final quarter. It was not the match Thunder wanted to be playing at the Copperbox, but the players knew they would need to dig deep to make sure their season ended on the only high left available to them. A tip by Bayman and athletic intercept from player of the match Jodie Gibson was the perfect start, and was duly rewarded by a neat Housby finish. Bayman was floored by heavy contact from Jets keeper Tuaine Keenan moments later and received treatment to a blow to the face on court. Cleared to play on, she was once again instrumental in Thunder getting the ball to the shooter quickly and an Enziano shot trickled in to keep Thunder up by a turnover.
Almond and Cato were now locked in an intense battle, with Cato left frustrated by an umpire call for replay after good pressure from the Thunder defender. Enziano’s fine shooting was starting to slip but Housby was on hand to mop up one miss with a tidy shot under the post.
Coach Tracey Neville called this game ‘Thunder’s final’ in the build-up and her players were treating it as such. Thunder were frustrating Jets with patient play in the final third and the pressure started to build on the white rose players. The two-time champions even entertained the crowd with some trickery, with Enziano executing an audacious dummy shot-pass to Housby.
They now had all the momentum and the game was starting to slip away from Jets. The 2014 champions had built an unassailable six-goal lead with four minutes left on the clock.
By the final buzzer, the smiles were back on the faces of everyone in the Thunder camp, and with it the belief that the squad can challenge for the Superleague title once again in 2016.