“It’s not about individuals, it’s about the team” – Dragons look to build on their connections in the Superleague this season

AS a franchise who is often unfairly overlooked in the Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL), the Celtic Dragons should not be underestimated in the upcoming season. With new signings for 2021 and accomplished head coach Tania Hoffman steering the ship, the Welsh side has the potential to rattle the cages of some of the more experienced VNSL sides this year. Draft Central spoke to Hoffman ahead of the season about what they are expecting from the competition this year and which players we should be keeping an eye on in the Dragons line-up.

The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has made life even more difficult for this team in particular. Hoffman explained that due to Dragons being based in Wales, they have had some issues staying on par with their counterparts in England.

“At the start of the season we were a little bit behind because the English and Welsh government guidelines were different, so in our preparation, we have been about three weeks behind the English franchises, but now we have got an exemption from the Welsh government in regards to status,” Hoffman said. “We’re now classed as professional with rugby and football so in lockdowns now we are able to train as normal… “So we’re on more of a level footing now.”

The side have played three pre-season matches so far, facing Wasps Netball before Christmas and more recently London Pulse and Manchester Thunder. After such a long break for the side, these outings were crucial preparation for the season ahead. Despite struggling in terms of scoreline, the Dragons side was persistent and showed patches of promise. 

“The Celtic Dragons team is quite different this season from last season so it was really important to get the girls out on court, see which combinations worked well and where we really need to do some work at training,” Hoffman said. “It’s about finding a style with the members of the team that we’ve got, our midcourt are quite small so we’re looking at a gameplan that suits their style which is quick and in front.”

Following the departure of young gun Latanya Wilson to the Adelaide Thunderbirds, Dragons were looking to bolster their side defensively and found their solution in Aussie import Annika Lee-Jones. Standing at 197cm, Lee-Jones is a handy asset for the Welsh side.

“We’re really excited to get Annika on board and her experience at SSN level will be invaluable,” Hoffman said. “Latanya left us quite late, so it was a real scramble to find a defensive player so late in signings, so we’re really lucky that she became available.”

After a stint at both West Coast Fever and Sunshine Coast Lightning, sitting behind Courtney Bruce and Phumza Maweni respectively, Lee-Jones will be looking to benefit from greater court time in the UK and the opportunity to flourish. Whilst we have not typically seen her in the attacking end in SSN, Lee-Jones is confident to play at a high level in both goal keeper and goal shooter, and this versatility will stand her in good stead at the Welsh side. 

“We have got a young shooting circle, and if we can pick and choose which games, we might chuck her down the other end just to change it up,” Hoffman said. “What was really pleasing was that we weren’t the only franchise after her, and we’re so lucky that she decided to come to Dragons for the 2021 season.”

Dragons have another import who has recommitted to the side for this season in Jamaican international Rebekah Robinson who will co-captain the side along with fiery midcourter Sophie Morgan. Robinson was also selected to represent the All-Stars team in a series against the England Roses.

“When I got the phone call to say they would like Rebecca to play, it was such an honour for her to be selected for the team, and we couldn’t say no to such an opportunity for her to play with some of the legends that are playing.”

Ten of the 11 Superleague sides have internationals representing the All-Stars, the only exception being London Pulse, and the wealth of talent on display in this series is a sign of how far the VNSL has progressed in recent years. 

As well as their standout imports, Celtic Dragons also boast a wealth of homegrown talent in their ranks. Hoffman said two players who will be key in 2021 are livewire defender Abby Tyrell, and sharpshooter Amy Clinton

“Abby and Amy have made the move to Cardiff and they are now living here, so I think they’ll have the opportunity to stamp their mark on the competition,” Hoffman said. “Abby has been with us three seasons now and each season we’ve seen the progression with her because she’s had more court time and she’s becoming a real leader within the environment for Dragons. Likewise, with Amy, she’s more confident out there and we just need her to turn to post and do that job for us.”

With fixtures still to be announced, all of the Superleague teams will be focussed on getting their squad prepared for whatever challenges may face them in the weeks ahead. It has still not been confirmed whether games will all be played at one central venue, however, given the current national lockdown it can be assumed that home and away fixtures will not be possible. The increased uncertainty also puts pressure on training partners, in particular, to be ready to step up.

“The rules have now changed and you can take up to twelve players to games, so for doubleheader weekends that’s really important,” Hoffman said. “For us, we’ll be looking at taking twelve just in case of injury so the training partners have got to be ready.”

Dragons will be looking to gel with their relatively new-look side and forge lasting connections to build on over the coming season. The side plays a tenacious and gutsy brand of netball so it will be interesting to see what they can do against the top teams.

“We have a team that’s really quite young at Superleague level quite inexperienced, so we’re not going to take any games for granted and we’re going to put our best foot forward out there. We won’t have any fear this season.”

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