Loughborough Lightning secure Cobden for 2021

FOLLOWING an injury-ridden start to the 2020 season, Loughborough Lightning have announced several key signings this week and are aiming to make an impact in the Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) next season. The Midlands side have an impressive record in the Superleague and narrowly missed out on claiming titles in 2017 and 2018. Draft Central spoke to Head Coach and Director of Netball Sara Bayman, as well as Commonwealth Games Gold medallist Beth Cobden, about getting back to training and looking forward to starting afresh in the new year. 

Lightning were one of the last VNSL franchises to start releasing who will be named on their roster for next season. After announcing Cobden earlier this week, Lightning also revealed that experience defender Sam May will return to the side for a second season. She will be joined in the defensive end by youngster Annabel Roddy, who will be looking to impress and earn selection for the England Under 21 side who will be heading to the World Youth Cup next year. Another youngster who will be hoping to make her mark is Beth Gabriel, who will gain valuable experience in the shooting end from playing alongside Lightning stalwart Ella Clark. Loughborough have also announced Lucy Parize, who was part of the 2019 British Fast5 All-Stars winning side, bringing their total to six signings so far. There are many complexities involved in putting a VNSL team together, especially with ongoing uncertainty in the UK as a whole. 

It’s always a difficult time and a frustrating time trying to get people signed and get a squad together,” Bayman said. “Now it’s time to get to work and hopefully have a successful year.”

After several seasons at Loughborough, Vicki Oyesola announced she would be making the move to brand new franchise Leeds Rhinos for 2021. As a quality player and England Rose, her departure left a hole to be filled in the Lightning defensive end. Bayman was pragmatic about how this change may impact the team. 

“It’s the nature of netball now that players move around and things don’t stay the same year to year, but we’re happy with the squad we’ve got and we feel like we can compete.”

With teams like London Pulse choosing to announce their signings in a live broadcast and other franchises drip-feeding updates about players on a weekly basis, the VNSL has been creative about maintaining interest during the long signing period.

“There are some big names in the Superleague this year, some big moves as well,” Bayman said. “It’s nice that fans get to see what’s happening as it happens and that fans get to connect with teams in that way because we’ve missed fans for the last six months.”

Lightning fans, in particular, were delighted by the news that Cobden will be back in purple for 2021. The Commonwealth Games Gold medallist and specialist wing defence is pleased to be back playing with her old club and excited about her return to court. 

“I just feel comfortable and confident being back here and really pleased that I’ve come back,” Cobden said. “I definitely feel loyal to the club.”

After rupturing her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the 2018 Superleague Grand Final, Cobden went through rehab and earned a contract with the Adelaide Thunderbirds for 2019. Unfortunately, she suffered another ACL rupture in the third round of the 2019 SSN season, and was sidelined for the remainder of the year. Despite such a tough journey, she enjoyed her time in Australia and found the experience to be quite different from playing in the UK. 

“It was a challenge being away from home and having that injury again. But it was also good to see the Australian style of play and get to understand it a little bit more. It’s interesting to see how they train and the sort of things they focus on because it is quite different to England.”

Whilst the VNSL remains as semi-professional in the UK, the intensity and full-time nature of the SSN league is likely to continue to attract most of the high calibre international players. Cobden notes that the standard of the league is very intense, and is something the VNSL can work towards. 

“I do think they have eight teams where you just don’t know who is going to win and anyone can beat anyone. Week-in week-out it’s like playing an international game. Whereas for us it’s not quite at that same level yet, but I do definitely feel like we’re going in the right direction.”

Similarly to other England Roses such as Serena Guthrie, Cobden has decided to make the move back to the UK, and will no doubt form a core part of Loughborough’s 2021 campaign. The extended break has given her more time to recover from her ACL, and Bayman will be monitoring her return to court carefully to avoid any risk of further damage. 

“I’m looking forward to Beth hopefully having an injury-free season, for her and for us, and it will be great to see her back on court and doing what she does best in terms of playing well and winning ball.”

Unfortunately, several injuries were part of the story for Loughborough in 2020. This included captain Natalie Panagarry being sidelined in the opening round due to a foot fracture. Fortunately the team is now back to full strength, and Bayman hopes to keep it that way.

“Our main aim now is just to make sure that we make strides in terms of improvements but also try and keep everyone fit so that come February we have got 15 players to pick from,” Bayman said. “Last season we had three, four, five injuries for any one game and it’s difficult to get any consistency while that’s happening.”

After missing out on Grand Final wins in 2017 and 2018 to Wasps Netball, Cobden, in particular, is hoping this side can go one better next year. 

“The two times we were in the final were so disappointing and I really do want to win with Loughborough, and we’ve definitely got a great calibre of players,” Cobden said. “It’s going to be a strange year with all the COVID regulations and things but hopefully, we can get a season going.”

Cobden has been supported through her rehab over the summer by the Roses programme and will be training with Loughborough whilst the test series in New Zealand is taking place. After such an exciting Cadbury Series, it will be intriguing to watch international netball for the first time since January and see how both teams perform. 

“New Zealand will go in as favourites without a doubt, just because they’ve played a season and they are match fit, and they’re world champions as well,” said Bayman. “It’s a difficult task for England but I understand why they want to play and why they need some international competition this year.”

After missing out on selection for the World Cup in 2019 due to her injury, Cobden is keen to get back out on court in the red dress. 

“I still have the same goals, I want to play for England, I want to go to the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup, so my sights are still set high. I’ve just got to focus on the short term and getting myself right, just try to play out a full Superleague season and get myself back to where I was before.”

Despite three ACL injuries, Cobden is showing no signs of slowing down. This season at Lightning will be a homecoming year for the midcourter and she reflected on her netball journey so far.

“It’s been full of highs and lows. It’s been amazing but it’s also been hard at times, but I still want more.”

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