VNSL 2021: Round 1/2 preview – Season to tip-off tonight

AFTER an 11 month absence, the Vitality Netball Superleague finally returns on the weekend with all 11 teams suiting up for the 2021 season as a huge opening weekend sees the first two rounds played at Studio 001 in Wakefield. Eleven matches will play across the exciting round of action, with nine teams playing two matches, and both Manchester Thunder and London Pulse taking the court once apiece.

Newest franchise Leeds Rhinos will be thrown straight into the deep end from the get-go as they open the season on Friday night against Celtic Dragons, whilst other intriguing matchups include battles between London Pulse and Surrey Storm on Saturday, Team Bath and Loughborough Lightning on Sunday, and Lightning and Wasps on Monday.


Celtic Dragons v. Leeds Rhinos

The opening match of the season should be a huge encounter between the Dragons and Rhinos, with it very fitting that one of the founding franchises in the league hosts the 2021 newcomers for their very first match. Expect both sides to fly out of the blocks and write themselves into the history books after so long off the court, with plenty of familiar faces sets to take the court and a couple of new names set to put their name in lights for the first time. Opposing Australians could go toe-to-toe with Dragons’ Annika Lee-Jones and Rhinos import Donnell Wallam – both hailing from Western Australia – both impressive in their own right, while the battle at the other end between Rebekah Robinson (Dragons) and Vicki Oyesola (Rhinos) is expected to provide plenty of X-factor. While Rhinos have been dealt a late withdrawal from import Madi Browne, expect Jade Clarke and Fi Toner to command the midcourt, though the Dragons have the experienced combinations across the court that could help them get the chocolates in this encounter.

Strathclyde Sirens v. Manchester Thunder

Strathclyde Sirens will host Manchester Thunder in the second match of the night, and expect the Thunder – who are 2019 premiers, and technically still reigning title-holders after last year’s incomplete season – to fly out of the blocks with this match their only encounter of the weekend. While the Sirens may need to pace themselves with a second game coming up on Saturday afternoon, the Thunder will have no qualms setting the tone, especially with the mindset of backing up their perfect start to the interrupted 2020 season. With the announcement of Kerry Almond coming out of retirement to rejoin Thunder after the late withdrawal of Loreen Ngwira just days ago, expect the Thunder defensive end to take a moment to shift into gear but be quick to wreak havoc against the Sirens. Expect an intriguing midcourt battle from the likes of Sirens’ Gia Abernethy, Claire Maxwell and newcomer Beth Dix against Thunder’s Amy Carter, Laura Malcolm and veteran Caroline O’Hanlon, with the match likely to be won or lost through the centre given the calibre of talent.

Tip: Rhinos by 5 goals, Thunder by 12


London Pulse v. Surrey Storm

In their only match of the round, expect last season’s improvers in London Pulse to come into this match with a real point to prove, especially as they come into their third season and are no longer the new franchise in the competition. As for Surrey Storm, they showcased some really good form last season prior to the season cancellation, with the two sides separated by just one goal in Round 2 last season – back on March 2, 2020. With both sides boasting an international tall timber at the post – South African Sigi Burger for Pulse and Australian Karyn Bailey for Storm – and plenty of speed through the midcourt, expect another close battle between the two sides. Watch out for experienced Surrey duo Yas Parsons and Mikki Austin in the centre, while Pulse’s exciting attacking unit of Adean Thomas, Michelle Drayne and Ashleigh Dekker out the front of Burger is likely to provide a wealth of ball into the circle, with Kira Rothwell and new recruit Lefebre Rademan sure to offer plenty of pressure.

Team Bath v. Celtic Dragons 

Dragons will be the first team this season to play two matches, inevitably completing their first weekend of action before a number of teams begin. But while that is a bonus, getting an extended break before next weekend, they will take on a tough Team Bath side which will be raring to go with plenty in the tank making for an intriguing outing. With a plethora of England Roses at their disposal, including returnees Serena Guthrie and Layla Guscoth, expect the blue and gold side to be a force to be reckoned with, and given the side’s defensive attributes have been well-documented over the past few seasons, expect the experienced names in the squad to lead from the back and drive forward. The Dragons attack will have their work cut out for them against the star power and defensive depth in the Bath squad, so will look to their experienced heads to command control, while former Bath attacker Laura Rudland will surely bring every ounce of her knowledge to the table to assist Amy Clinton and Robinson at the post.

Strathclyde Sirens v. Severn Stars

Much like the encounter between Bath and Dragons, Sirens will be playing their second game of the weekend whilst Stars suit up for the first time this season, and will certainly be more fresh on their feet. That being said, the Sirens’ matchplay after so long away from the court could prove crucial heading into this match, and with these sides showcasing similar form across the past few seasons, we could see another close encounter to close out Saturday’s matches. For the Sirens, expect experienced goaling duo in Bethan Goodwin and Lynsey Gallagher to maintain pressure whilst youngster Emma Barrie can provide an extra tall option at the post where required. As for the Stars, midcourter Liana Leota is hard to stop when she is in form, and working with the like of Lucy Harris and Bethan Dyke through the centre they will be an exciting combination to watch out for.

Tip: Pulse by 10 goals, Bath by 12, Stars by 5


Team Bath v. Loughborough Lightning

Opening Sunday’s proceedings is Team Bath once more, with their excellent attack looking to push Loughborough’s defence to the brink. Once again, Lightning will be fresh heading into their first game, but that will not stop the zippy defensive-minded Bath unit, with the side hard to stop with endurance beyond belief throughout the squad. Given the Lightning’s own goaling combination of Mary Cholhok and Ella Clark is so dangerous, they will not go down without a fight as Bath’s defence – particularly Summer Artman – will have their hands full with the Ugandan tall timber unstoppable when she gets going. While Bath can usually rely on its defence winning games, they can also pile on the offensive pressure with the likes of Kim Borger and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis able to ply their trade in the goal circle with ease – though they could certainly have their hands full with Jas OdeogberinAlice Harvey and Sam May to contend with. A tight match is predicted here, although given Bath’s versatility and speed across the court, they should take out this match even with the attacking prowess of the Lightning.

Surrey Storm v. Saracens Mavericks

Expect an intriguing matchup between the Storm and Mavericks, with both sides showcasing some good signs last season but the Mavericks losing a crucial fixture in George Fisher at the goal post over the break. The Storm’s plethora of defensive options – including Leah Middleton and Felisitus Kwangwa – will look to really test the new-look Mavericks attack, with South African Ine-Mari Venter joined by the likes of Kadeen Corbin and Chloe Essam out the front. The Mavericks have been within reach of the top sides in the competition for a number of seasons now but have been slightly inconsistent along the way, making for a huge contest across the court and plenty to look forward to. Storm lynchpin Bailey will have a tough task against firepower Razia Quashie, and with a relatively new-look goaling unit the match will well and truly be won an lost at that end, with the Mavericks’ defensive end realistically ranking amongst the best in the competition.

Severn Stars v. Wasps Netball

Wasps will have a real point to prove in this match against Severn Stars, with their last encounter seeing the Stars reign supreme by five goals during the second last match of the 2020 season. When it comes to experience, the Wasps lead the way boasting plenty of gamechangers and leaders around the court with the likes of Rachel Dunn and Sophia Candappa likely to lead the frontcourt charge, and really test the Stars’ defensive capacity with Dee Bolakoro and Nia Jones likely to control the defensive circle. The Stars’ solid midcourt combinations will be crucial to uphold both defensive and offensive pressure across the court, while they will look to take advantage of the new-look circle defence of the Wasps, with Hannah Knights‘ retirement last season leaving a hole in the defensive unit which the likes of tall timber Georgia Rowe will look to exploit. Overall, the Wasps unit should still have this one given their standouts, but expect a close encounter to rival that of last season’s outing between the two.

Tip: Bath by 11 goals, Mavericks by 7, Wasps by 8


Loughborough Lightning v. Wasps Netball

In one of our touted matches of the weekend, the encounter between Lightning and Wasps is set to be one of the exciting ones with so many critical options around the court for both sides who can change up a game within the blink of an eye. Expect a huge midcourt battle as the likes of Lightning unit Hannah JosephNat Panagarry, Hannah Williams and returnee Beth Cobden face off against Wasps’ Candappa, Iona Christian and Amy Flanagan, with all the listed players significant in their own right across the court. Defensively, the Wasps will benefit off testing their combinations against the Stars in their previous match, so expect a more settled defensive unit to combat  Cholhok and Clark, with Fran Williams expected to lead the charge alongside Josie Huckle and the likes of former Stars defender, Ella Powell-Davies.

Leeds Rhinos v. Saracens Mavericks

The final match of an action-packed weekend of action will see the Rhinos and Mavericks go head-to-head as both sides look to contain their opposition. While the Mavericks’ consistent partnerships and reliable stars should realistically have them sitting just ahead of the Rhinos in this encounter, the newest franchise should not be underestimated – especially with two full days of recovery between their first and second matches of the weekend. Another exciting midcourt battle is expected in this matchup with Clarke and Sasha Corbin predicted to go toe-to-toe, whilst Mavericks’ Gabby Marshall and Georgia Lees are tough as nails and will make it hard for Rhinos’ inexperienced former-Lightning duo Rosie Harris and Emily Hollingworth to find drives down the court. That being said, with Wallam as a target at the post, expect the Australian goaler to find plenty of purchase and be a good physical matchup for Quashie within the goal circle, forcing the goal keeper to play a man-on-man guard role rather than her usual flying and zoning strategy and needing the likes of Jo Trip and Jodie Gibson to step up to the challenge outside the circle.

Tip: Wasps by 5 goals, Mavericks by 3

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