Vitality Netball Superleague preview: Which teams will stand out in 2021?

THE Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) signing window is now firmly closed and all clubs have revealed their full roster for the upcoming season. With several exciting additions and big moves within the league, Draft Central took a look at each side’s major losses and gains, and some key points to note ahead of 2021. The competition this year is shaping up to be extremely close, and the battle for a spot in the top four will be fierce. We will have to wait and see if the teams who have recruited well rise to the top, or if those who managed to retain their core units for another season will overtake them.

Celtic Dragons

Dragons have a strong squad of gusty players, and while they may not boast as many stars as some rival VNSL franchises, they have often proven themselves to be a thorn in the side of many of the top teams. The signing of Annika Lee-Jones from Sunshine Coast Lighting is a big addition for them, and Lee-Jones will replace young Jamaican defender Latanya Wilson who moves to the Adelaide Thunderbirds. Having a player with experience at the SSN level will be hugely beneficial and will help to develop some of the younger athletes and provide versatility and depth to the squad. Sunshine Girl Rebekah Robinson has recommitted to the side and will certainly be one to watch in the attacking end next season, with her strong drives and accuracy to post.

Leeds Rhinos

The Yorkshire side have made their intentions very clear for next season by signing four senior internationals in Jade Clarke, Vicki Oyesola, Fi Toner and Diamonds legend Madi Browne. The addition of rookie shooting sensation Donnell Wallam from West Coast Warriors, along with their wealth of homegrown local talent, makes for a side with star quality and the potential to make a name for themselves in their inaugural season. Having a side with several big names can be exciting, but as we have seen with the Collingwood Magpies in recent years, the cohesion as a group has to be strong as well. Head Coach Dan Ryan has compiled a great mix of youth and experience, but it remains to be seen if they will gel together as a brand new team, or whether they may need a season or two to really make an impact.

London Pulse

Hoping to continue their strong form of 2020, Pulse have retained almost their entire squad from last season. Following the departure of Chiara Semple to the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, the London side recruited South African international Lefebre Rademan to partner alongside international teammate Sigi Burger in the shooting end. The depth in the squad continues across all areas of the court, with Adean Thomas and Michelle Drayne in the midcourt, and a fiery and tenacious defensive end. The challenge for Pulse will be whether they can continue the momentum of last season. Their vastly different squad had the element of surprise in 2020, but other teams may now have had a chance to suss out their game plan, and it will be up to Sam Bird to make use of her talented bench in order to keep the other sides guessing. 

Loughborough Lightning

After several unfortunate injuries during the short 2020 season, Loughborough will be looking to get back to winning ways with their strong and versatile squad. The addition of Commonwealth Games gold medallist Beth Cobden will be a welcome boost for the fairly young side, and the shooting duo of Ella Clark and Mary Cholhok will no doubt cause headaches for defenders across the league. If this team can stay injury-free, with the likes of captain Nat Panagarry and defensive dynamo Sam May leading the charge, they will be in a very strong position at the end of the season. Sara Bayman is a driven and tactical coach who knows how to win and will prepare this side well for the challenging season ahead. 

Manchester Thunder

The current reigning champions have once again confirmed an experienced and talented lineup for the upcoming season. The Northern side have a dynamic shooting end with multiple combinations including Vitality Rose Ellie Cardwell and Malawi Queen Joyce Mvula, and will have no trouble finding turnover ball thanks to their fearsome defensive lineup. The only potential chink in their armour may be the wing attack position. With Ash Neal departing last season, and Liana Leota the season prior, Thunder will likely look to either Laura Malcolm, Amy Carter or Caroline O’Hanlon to fill the crucial feeding role. Whilst all of these players are of extremely high calibre, they all historically play in wing defence/centre. When Thunder settle on which of these athletes will be their starting wing attack, they will no doubt be a force to be reckoned with once again next season.

Saracens Mavericks

With a frighteningly good defensive end and numerous current or former Roses scattered across the court, Mavericks are certainly in with a chance of making up for their 2019 disappointment. Jodie Gibson returns to the side for another season and is expected to take the court following successful rehab from her injury. Her presence will bolster the side defensively, and the midcourt combination of Sasha Corbin and Gabby Marshall is tried and tested. The major loss for Mavericks during the off-season is sharpshooter George Fisher, who will ply her trade for the Southern Steel next year. South African international Ine-Mari Venter will look to fill Fisher’s shoes after a season with the Queensland Firebirds and her combination with livewire Kadeen Corbin will be crucial for Mavericks in 2021. 

Severn Stars

Stars’ lineup for next season contains a fascinating mix of styles and a good range of versatile and experienced players. With several of the Welsh national team, and led by captain Liana Leota, this side have a range of weapons in their arsenal. Georgia Rowe is commanding under the post and her partnership with Paige Reed has developed nicely over the past few years. Their imports in Malysha Kelly of Jamaica and Fiji international Adi Bolakoro bring plenty of flair and experience to the defensive end. If Stars can merge together as a group and find a way to blend their talented squad together then they will be snapping at the heels of other teams for a place in the top four. 

Strathclyde Sirens

Sirens are a determined and well-respected franchise who are making big strides in terms of fan engagement and have recently announced a brand new kit partnership with Nike. The Scottish side were dealt a blow recently with the news that exciting defender and Protea Zanele Vimbela, who was a standout for the side defensively in the early rounds of 2020, will not take the court in 2021 due to a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Claire Maxwell announced her pregnancy and will be supporting the team in an Assistant Coach role, so they will still benefit from her wealth of enthusiasm and knowledge but will be without her impact and presence on court. It will be up to the likes of captain Gia Abernathy and shooting stalwart Lynsey Gallagher to rally the side and ensure they are ready to compete with some of the more experienced franchises.

Surrey Storm

The Surrey side, led by player/coach Mikki Austin, have undergone wholesale changes in recent years, and the retirement of their captain Katy Hughes will leave a hole in the side. Fortunately, they have been able to recruit Zimbabwe captain Felisitus Kwangwa which will be an enormous boost defensively. A maiden VNSL season is a daunting task, but with the likes of Roses athlete Yasmin Parsons supporting in the midcourt and experienced Karyn Bailey spearheading the side in attack, Kwangwa will no doubt settle into her new team with ease. Overall Storm will be looking to set their intentions from the start of the season and use their trademark tenacity to push teams and challenge for good ladder position. 

Team Bath

After some big wins in the opening rounds of the 2020 season, Bath bears the weight of expectation on their shoulders. With the return of the likes of Serena Guthrie, Layla Guscoth and Eboni Usuro-Brown, this side has all the key ingredients to make a claim for another championship next season. The shooting combination of Sophie Drakeford-Lewis and Australian Kim Commane is supremely talented and accurate, and their midcourt boasts a wealth of depth and versatility, in particular with the return of dynamo Guthrie in centre. Their defensive end has multiple strong combinations and will likely cause havoc for attacking units throughout the league.

Wasps Netball

With several key names, including Roses legend Jade Clarke and former captain Hannah Knights, missing from the side, Wasps will be hoping their young stars will rise to the challenge in 2021. This team has plenty of Superleague experience and the impact of a shooter like Rachel Dunn should never be underestimated. Fran Williams has been making a name for herself internationally and will most likely partner with Josie Huckle to form an opportunistic and crafty defensive duo. The addition of tall timber Gezelle Allison brings extra height and versatility to their attacking end, and we can expect to see Sophia Candappa taking charge through the midcourt as she assumes the captaincy. The question for Wasps is whether they have the belief to get themselves over the line, after such a disappointment in the 2019 VNSL Grand Final.

Picture: Eliza Morgan/Ben Lumley

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