Adelaide Thunderbirds

The Adelaide Thunderbirds finished seventh in a Super Netball season of mixed results. Image: Adelaide Thunderbirds/Twitter

The Adelaide Thunderbirds have finished seventh, in an underwhelming season where they showed small glimpses of what they are capable of.

The Adelaide Thunderbirds have once again had a mixed season. Good wins and bad losses resulted in a seventh-place finish for a team that showed it is capable of much more.

Another five wins this season provided plenty of positive signs for Adelaide fans. However, some disappointing double-digit losses meant overall there was little improvement for the club on the Super Netball standings.

The Thunderbirds’ strong finish highlighted what they can do, but unfortunately, it was too little too late. They claimed some big scalps in the NSW Swifts and Sunshine Coast Lightning but were still three wins off the pace of finals.

Starting out the year with finals in their sight, the Thunderbirds have had to settle for a seventh-place finish. It’s not the wooden spoon, but it’s not the top four either.

What worked?

On court cohesion. Something Adelaide has lacked in recent times is cohesion on court to move the ball swiftly from one end to the other.

While the connection dropped in and out, there were many magical moments of play where the players appeared to be completely in sync with each other.

One of these times was when the team used its speed on transition. It was supported by players taking the first option and also having the confidence to bomb the ball into Lenize Potgieter when she was home alone.

As the season rolled on there were also more examples of players knowing what their teammates were going to do with the ball. Familiarity with common movements, backing players up – it all became more instinctive for this group.

A little luck with injuries has also meant the squad of 10 was very consistent each week. While the training partners had less of a go, the 10 became more familiar with the combinations and executed the game plan together.

Matilda Garrett in defence. After four seasons at Collingwood Magpies, Garrett moved to the Thunderbirds in hope of something different.

Working with Jamaican goal keeper Shamera Sterling, Garrett has had an impressive season which has seen her rewarded with a spot in the Diamonds Development Squad.

The combination took a couple of weeks to find its groove but has been effective in gaining ball for its team.

Garrett also played her goal defence role by transitioning the gained ball down the court and doing all she could to have it converted, without being able to shoot the goal herself.

It was a promising start to a career in Pink for Garrett.

Defenders for the Adelaide Thunderbirds Shamera Sterling, Matilda Garrett, and Shadine Van Der Merwe. Photo: Adelaide Thunderbirds/Twitter

What didn’t?

A slow start. Five losses to start the season is never a good sign for a team looking to improve and play finals in a 14-round competition.

The last in this string of losses was a one-goal loss to the Lightning, which could have gone either way, but ultimately the Thunderbirds just didn’t know how to win.

In the second half of the season, the Thunderbirds kicked into gear. The team split its post-bye games with three wins and three losses, a fair result

Adelaide had four international players on its list this year, equal most in the competition. Only one of these players completed pre-season in Adelaide, the rest quarantined in March to join the team with just one month to find cohesion on court.

This lack of time to gel as a team, in the same physical space as each other, was unfortunate but unavoidable due to the pandemic. More time together is what this team needs to be more consistent on court.

Rotations, rotations, rotations. Tania Obst’s obsession with rolling substitutions did not fade as the season went on. Mid-season, it was clear the constant substitutions were causing chaos in the Thunderbirds line-up and after the bye, Obst only reduced the number of changes she was making ever so slightly.

Across the season, Adelaide averaged 20 rotations in losses and 15 for wins. Obst made as few as six substitutions and as many as 30, in losses to the Lightning and Giants, respectively.

Not only was it how many changes Obst made, but how little time she gave combinations to find their rhythm.

Season highlight

A one-goal win against the Lightning. Just before mid-season, the Thunderbirds beat the NSW Swifts, however, turning the tables on the Lightning was their best win for the year.

In Round 5 Adelaide fell by one goal to Sunshine Coast Lightning, but reversed this for a one-goal win come Round 12.

What made this win sweeter was that it happened away from home after a chaotic week.

Set to host the remainder of the season, the South Australian club was relocated to Queensland due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Adelaide. The team went from being comfortable at home to taking a flight to the Sunshine Coast to play its final three games.

There were multiple lead changes within the exciting contest and it very nearly all came undone for the Thunderbirds. However, they held on for a thrilling victory.

After this game, Potgieter spoke to the broadcast about how the team had stuck to its game plan to grind out this one-goal win. It was a common thread throughout the year: there was a game plan and if the Thunderbirds stuck to it they could beat anyone.

Season lowlight

The Thunderbirds locked out of Saturday night Fever. An enormous 25-goal loss to the West Coast Fever was not what the Adelaide Thunderbirds were after when they travelled to Perth in Round 11.

In possibly their poorest outing for the year, Adelaide scored just 44 goals for the match, which was surprisingly not its lowest score, held to 41 by the Giants three weeks prior.

Adelaide was up by one goal at quarter-time in this game, but just as it did against the Fever in Round 3, Adelaide fell away quickly.

Several players were having an off night, which resulted in 37 general play turnovers the Fever comfortably converted to stretch out the lead in the second and fourth quarters.

Other lowlights included two Giant defeats, including the opening game of the season.

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Team MVP

Sunshine Girl Shamera Sterling Thunderbirds’ MVP. The international defender has been playing at the Thunderbirds for three seasons and has dominated defence since arriving.

This season, Sterling has been best in the league for intercepts, with 49 for the season, defensive rebounds (25), and second-best for deflections (86).

As Adelaide found its mojo, so did the Jamaican superstar. In the Round 5 loss to the Lightning, Sterling starred in keeper and took out the match MVP, despite being in the losing team.

From that game, Sterling has ruled the defensive end for the Thunderbirds. Working largely with Garrett, and fellow Sunshine Girl Latanya Wilson and South African Shadine van der Merwe at times, Sterling has adapted well to the new defensive quartet, and the team’s confidence has grown with it.

Sterling and Garrett have created their own move – a double-jump in defence – where they both look to block the shot one after each other. It surprised more than one shooter this season.

Rising Star

Maisie Nankivell rose as a leader and attacking mid-courter. The competitions’ Rising Star from 2020 starred again in 2021 for the Thunderbirds, taking her leadership to new levels as the Thunderbirds’ vice-captain.

An AFLW player in 2019, then a Thunderbirds training partner, and now a contracted player, it has been a fast rise up the ranks for Nankivell. She has now been named in the Diamonds’ Development Squad for 21/22, highlighting her potential as a future Diamond.

Nankivell played all 14 games this season, in which she averaged 18 goal assists and two deflections.

She is a versatile mid-courter, something Obst has taken advantage of this year. Nankivell started her Super Netball career at wing defence, but has moved more into centre and wing attack in 2021.

A leader of the club at 20-years-old is an impressive effort and Nankivell has certainly demonstrated her quality in this role. From words in the huddle to taking ownership of a transition on court, Nankivell has found her place in Adelaide’s lineup.

Maisie Nankivell in wing attack. Photo: Adelaide Thunderbirds/Twitter

Moving Forward

Who stays and who goes? It’s the question on everyone’s mind across the league as we draw closer to a new contract period.

Adelaide generated plenty of conversation last year with its contract choices, letting go Roses wing attack Chelsea Pitman. This year a quieter approach is more likely, as the club looks to build on its 2021 efforts.

After some defensive changes last off-season, it might be time for some changes in attack for 2022.

Early in the season, Samantha Gooden saw more court time, however, this reduced as Georgie Horjus and Lenize Potgieter found their connection. Gooden did jump in for some Power 5 periods and in other patches, however, another option may be considered next season.

There are training partners, such as Lucy Austin, waiting in the wings for their call-up or Obst may look elsewhere for small tweaks to her squad.

It was clearer in the second half of the season that Adelaide is building something special, the players do need more time together to find consistency on court.

From the outside, they look like a driven group of people who are happy in each other’s company and listening to the players on the inside, they want to play for each other, execute better and find the connection that comes with more seasons on court.

While it wasn’t the rise up the ladder the Adelaide Thunderbirds were after, there are positives heading into season 2022.

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