The Melbourne Vixens have charged into this weekend’s grand final as strong favourites, chasing their first Super Netball premiership and their first national league title since 2014.
Although the team has always been pretty successful in the regular season — having won the minor premiership back in 2017 and only losing two of the 15 games they’ve played in 2020 — it has not quite been able to fulfil that potential in finals series.
History is against them, too.
They may have finished the regular season on top of the ladder again, but none of Super Netball’s minor premiers have gone on to lift the trophy.
However, head coach Simone McKinnis believes her team can become the first to do it against the West Coast Fever on Sunday, with bigger factors driving the Vixens’ desire to win this year.
“Only if you’re from Victoria do you understand what it’s like at the moment and how hard it has been,” McKinnis said.
“We left Melbourne when it was heading into its worst period of lockdown and obviously our family and friends are still there.
“Anything we can take back is a positive, so we are doing it for them.”
More than three months away from home
Due to the Queensland Government’s restrictions for Victorian travellers, the Collingwood Magpies and Melbourne Vixens were the only teams required to quarantine for two weeks upon arriving in the Super Netball bubble.
At that time, they were nearing the end of their preseason preparations, which had already been difficult, with most of their training sessions done over the internet at home in isolation.
Then each team had to play two to three games a week during the regular draw, as the league scrambled to squeeze a full season in and make up for the delay to the start of the competition.
By the time we reach Sunday’s grand final, the Vixens will have spent 93 days in Queensland — the longest stretch away from home for any of the teams.
McKinnis said this year, especially with its tight turnarounds and compact season, had been “tough”.
“The coaching staff were having a laugh about it a couple of nights ago. We’ve all individually had our ups and downs, with tears, laughter and everything in between.”
With the worst of it behind them, an exciting prospect looms this weekend, with a chance to make all that hard work count and to send Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip out on a high.
The long-bomb-shooting pair are retiring from the sport, after a glittering career that has seen them represent the Australian Diamonds and become fan favourites.
“They’ve been great Victorian netballers and people within the community for a long time,” McKinnis said.
“I’ve been coaching Tegan since I started at the Vixens in 2012 and she’s been a loyal, great athlete for 10 years now … and for Caitlin to be back at Vixens this year and to be finishing her career, we want nothing more than to be playing our best netball beside them in their last game.”
What’s made the Vixens so successful this year?
McKinnis is known for making very few changes to her starting side and for teaching her players to identify and problem solve on their own during a game.
While unlimited rolling substitutions were introduced this year, McKinnis stuck with her coaching philosophy and made use of the new rule less than any coach in the Super Netball league.
“I do like players to run out games because I think there’s always going to be a time when you need a team to play right to the end,” she said.
“But I’ve really enjoyed the rolling subs and I think our team have still used it effectively because it allows you to make changes without any fuss and bother, and without any hold-up of play.
“For me, it’s about wanting to give players some exposure and seeing what they can do, but also recognising a purpose behind it. You can quickly make that change and it may only be for a couple of minutes for a player to come off, take a breath, rethink and go back out again.”
While the ability to adapt on court has been crucial to the Vixens’ success, McKinnis also thinks the team’s relentless intensity and consistency have been vital.
Four of the players in their 2014 premiership-winning team are still there (Philip, Kate Moloney, Liz Watson and Jo Weston), and Watson and Weston were both rookies during that season.
“I think the most important thing is getting that belief, and that’s certainly been there this year,” McKinnis said.
“They’ve grown over previous seasons and learnt from their past experiences.
“Those players know how to win a premiership. It doesn’t happen very often … we’ve been a group that has been through a lot together and it would be really special to go all the way.”
Squad depth particularly helpful in unique season
With such a compacted season and high demands on each of the players’ bodies, the Vixens’ depth has also made for a winning combination.
Thwaites is a good example, reinventing herself as a goal attack this year and being able to have an impact further up the court than her usual spot in goal shooter.
The versatility of players like Kate Eddy as a tall wing defence with the ability to also push into the defending circle has meant the team has had plenty of defensive options too.
“Thwaites has been fantastic,” McKinnis said.
“We spoke at the start of the year about how the Vixens needed that capacity to be able to mix up that goal attack position and she worked really hard in the preseason because the 17 seasons before she’s been playing goal shooter, which is a big difference.
“I’ve been super pleased with Kate Eddy too.
“I think she’s been one of the most consistent, solid wing defenders this season and also played goal defence for us as well.”
You can hear ABC Grandstand’s live call of the Super Netball grand final this Sunday from 1:00pm AEDT on the ABC Listen app.