In amongst all the usual Round 7 VNSL games, Manchester Thunder had a special game planned. This season saw the return of the local derby between rivals from Manchester and Leeds- the first since Yorkshire Jets ceased to be a Superleague franchise in 2011.
With Leeds Rhinos’ entry to the league last season (and no home games in 2021), what better opportunity for Thunder to move from their usual Belle Vue to the Manchester AO arena.
Thunder have been promoting the game far and wide, and this paid dividends with over 5,000 fans attending and an electric atmosphere in the arena.
Kelly Walker, who is attending a home venue for every franchise this season, was in attendance and rated the game 10/10. Entertainment was provided throughout with a half time dance performance, lively MC and a lot of fan dancing.
With Leeds Rhinos playing their second game in 24 hours, it was always going to be a difficult challenge against the unbeaten Thunder.
Rebekah Airey was rewarded with a Starting 7 position after her Player of the Match performance against the Severn Stars. However, Thunder’s experienced attack line were formidable and converted their turnovers resulting in a 21-8 first quarter to Thunder.
Rhinos made tweaks to their defensive line-up throughout and although they secured some good turnovers, conversion to goal proved difficult. Kerry Almond and Shadine van der Merwe looked to be building on their partnership and with Laura Malcom in WD it was difficult for the Rhinos attack to penetrate. Emily Hollingsworth suffered what looked like a nasty injury and didn’t return to court. Thunder fell just short of 70 goals, taking the win 69-45. Van der Merve picked up the Player of the Match award.
After the match we caught up with Nat Metcalf who was excited about how netball has grown in the UK; “To be able to do Netball live here in Manchester was amazing. Credit to the Rhinos as it was a well-contested game,” she said.
When asked what inspired her performance she credited her defence end, who accumulated 20 deflections and 11 intercepts over the 60 minutes.
“I classed them today as brave, they worked hard and it inspired me in attack. It’s been a while since I’ve played GA and I’m really enjoying it. Our attack end is amazing and I feel very well supported.”
England Roses’ fans will have been relieved to note that Metcalf played her first game of the season without strapping on her knee, she said it’s really improving, and that her rehab has been going well.
Thunder midcourter, Laura Malcolm also credited the defence in her post-match interview, “It’s amazing this year. Everybody is really committed to getting better, working on our systems and our unit. I feel very lucky the mix of players we have in the squad.”
One match up that didn’t go amiss was Malcolm against Roses teammate Jade Clarke.
“It’s always a good battle against Jade. I know she is an absolute engine, so trying to match her energy. We set up as a unit defence, so it was what we can set up as a unit and win the ball.”
Leeds Rhino’s dynamic WA/GA Brie Grierson assessed the game as “[Thunder] put out a really classy performance and they outplayed us in parts. We played some good netball and maybe the best we’ve played in a while but we couldn’t sustain it for 60 minutes and they could. We are working on our connections and hopefully, the performance will come.”
On the changes to the attack end, Brie said “when a change happens it’s to bring something different on. At training we are always mixing up whose on court, so it’s not a shock when someone comes on court. It’s quite adaptable for us.”
One of the biggest changes to the Rhinos set up this year that many are still getting used to is their head coach, Tracey Robinson who has taken over from Dan Ryan.
“It’s a very different style- people think because they are both Aussies they would be the same. It was a shock at first but it’s been good for us to learn and adapt and have more versatility,” Grierson comments.
This week also saw the huge announcement of Serena Guthrie’s pregnancy and retirement from the sport, which has been met with praise and gratitude. England teammate Metcalf said of Guthrie “It’s amazing for Serena, I’m so excited for her. I’m so grateful and fortunate to have played alongside her”
Malcolm said “She has been incredible. In the world, I don’t think there is another player like her. To have played/trained against a player like that is insane. How she approached things on and off the court is phenomenal.”
After this match, where both Clarke and Malcolm have made stunning impressions, it leaves the question of who will Jess Thirlby choose to fill the Roses’ midcourt and the captaincy.