Rachel Lowe celebrating one of her goals with Natalie Tobin against Melbourne City. (Photo: Izhar Khan)

Midfielder Rachel Lowe and the whole Sydney FC side are itching to take their revenge against Melbourne Victory in a rematch of last year's A-League Women grand final on Sunday.

Last season’s A-League Women grand final could not have gone worse for Sydney.

No Cortnee Vine. Goalless for 120 minutes and seeming destined for penalties, Kyra Cooney-Cross belts an Olimpico in to give Melbourne the 1-0 victory, breaking the hearts of the Sky Blues.

Nearly a year later, while the loss may not sting as much as it did in the immediate aftermath, revenge is still on the cards for Sydney FC ahead of a second straight grand final showdown with the Victory.

Sydney FC midfielder Rachel Lowe spoke to The Inner Sanctum about what was become a massive build up to the most important fixture of the year.

“Victory have always been a really, kind of, big rivalry for us,” she said.

“They’re another big club and they’ve got a rich history of winning. It’s kind of following a script for us to meet them again in the final, especially drawing with them in Melbourne when we probably should have won by a couple of goals.

“The whole team is ready to get revenge and hopefully come out with a win.”

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That meeting in Melbourne was the first time the two sides came head-to-head since the grand final, and was the only encounter during the regular season because of the inequalities in the draw.

For Sydney, the focus in terms of the game plan and strategy leading into the game is an internal one and looking at how it will improve. There are still of course external factors that help with motivation stemming out of that 2-2 draw in Melbourne.

“Our main principles are we focus on ourselves. The majority, just focusing on us in the lead up and what we can do,” Lowe said.

“At the same time, I think using the motivation of the draw in Melbourne and just kind of the way we felt that they reacted to that draw as though it was potentially a win. We kind of are using that as an external motivator but focusing internally on us and trying to prep as best as we can.”

Many have pointed to the inequality of the draw and that it has been a big factor in Sydney’s success this season, with the side not leaving New South Wales until the game against Victory.

However, this was not necessarily Sydney’s fault, as it had the originally scheduled two trips to Melbourne in late January postponed.

“We had a lot of home games at the start of the season and throughout the middle of the season. Then we had a pretty hectic schedule. We went back and forth to Melbourne, then to Tasmania,” Lowe explained.

“That was actually quite difficult I think, just to adjust to the flying, and flying and playing, and not being at home, having a different routine.

“At the end of the day we probably benefited from having a lot of home games, then had to kind of deal with it in the end of the season. It was also quite a fatiguing process with the amount of games in such a short period of time.

“All teams had to deal with the travel. We just had to deal with it at a different time and I think we dealt with it really well.”

A Sky Blue midfield

For the Sky Blues, success this season from a game plan perspective has been through the midfield. Dominating the way the game is played through the middle of the park has been integral to that.

That will not change come Sunday, and Lowe has been incredibly crucial to the midfield success this season after injury issues last year.

But it’s not just Lowe that is an integral part of the midfield, as she was quick to point out.

“It’s been good. Last season was a tough one for me with carrying some injuries, so to come in this season feeling fresh and to get solid minutes and consistent minutes has been really nice,” she said.

“I’ve played with Macca [Mackenzie Hawkesby] and Taylor [Ray] for years now. I played with Macca when I was in under-12s and Taylor pretty soon after so we have really good chemistry on and off the field.

“I think you can’t really underestimate how important it is to know the rest of your midfield cause it’s the core of the team.

“I think if you win the midfield, you win the games. I’m really happy to be a part of it and play a key role in it and hopefully can do the same leading into the final.”

That is an ethos that echoes throughout the way that Lowe handles herself. It is very much a team-first mentality, and this was shown when asked about her favourite moment of the season so far.

“Winning the premiership is always fun. I think the way we did it was really special as well,” she said.

Sydney FC celebrates its 1-0 victory over Adelaide United to seal the premier’s plate for a second straight year. Photo Credit: Sydney FC/Twitter

“But I’d say maybe our winning streak and not conceding. That was pretty special I think.

“I think Ante said it multiple times: ‘This is not going to happen again for a few years so just relish it and don’t stress about losing the streak. Just relax and keep going.’

“I thought that was a really fun kind of milestone to keep chasing. It really reflected our attack and more importantly our defence, and keeping that many clean sheets with Jada [Whyman] and our backline.

“I thought that was really special.”

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It is not just the midfield that is a close-knit unit on and off the park. The entire team is, and that is because of the way this group has been set up by coach Ante Juric.

With a lot of young players in the squad, turning that off-field closeness into on-field success is an easy thing for Lowe and the Sydney squad.

“The team’s very young so the majority of the players have played together with the young Matildas or other representative teams,” Lowe explained.

“We’ve all known each other for a while so it’s been really easy to come into a group where you’re not really meeting a lot of new people every season.

“There’s consistency in the group. It’s a really nice feeling for everyone to get along. I feel like everyone kind of has each other’s back and we’re all close off the field.

“We can joke around, but I also feel like we have a really good way of switching that into game mode and taking it out to the field and being really competitive and aggressive, but then off the field having a laugh and being relaxed. I think it’s a nice balance.”

Adapting the captaincy

A new captain will sometimes cause disruption within the locker-room, but that was not the case for this close-knit Sydney side.

The absence of the last captain Teresa Polias left a big hole not only in the middle of the park, but also in terms of squad leadership. It is a role that current captain Nat Tobin has filled quite well according to Lowe.

“[She’s] definitely been a big part of our team, and obviously captaining us this year… she had big shoes to fill from T leaving through having a baby, and she’s done so well to fill them,” Lowe said.

“I think Nat, and the other… older players have done really well to kind of work together to fill that hole.

Natalie Tobin in action against Melbourne City during the 2021/22 A-League Women’s season. (Photo: Izhar Khan)

“She [Tobin] brings a different energy… she really leads from the back vocally, but also just with how she plays. She’s been super rock solid at the back and has saved us a lot of times with crunching tackles or winning the ball.

“She’s also a really lively and energetic character off the field. That really works with our team. A lot of players are really loud and kind of bubbly, so she’s kind of like the heart of the changing room.”

Coaching milestone

With this grand final, Juric will now coach in his fifth successive grand final in his first five seasons as a coach, something that has never been done before at a national league level.

Kevin McCormack (in the WSNL from 1997-2000) and Juric’s opposite number on Sunday, Jeff Hopkins (with the Brisbane Roar in the A-League Women from 2009-2012) both made it to the grand final in their first four seasons as coach.

Despite all the success in reaching five straight grand finals (one wins, three losses), from an external perspective, this season feels different.

It feels like the culmination of a master plan put together over the previous five seasons of hard work to get here, and that is shown in the way Juric coaches the squad, which is well enjoyed by the entire team who love playing for him.

“He’s a different style of coach. He gives his players a lot more freedom, especially at training. We don’t really have, kind of set structures and tactics that he necessarily wants us to follow,” Lowe explained.

“He’s very big on letting us play and expressing ourselves which I think has actually been really crucial for us this season. [It] gives us the confidence to go out and play and not be under really strict restraints on how he wants us to play.

Coach Ante Juric celebrating a victory against Melbourne City during the season. (Photo: Izhar Khan)

“I think that shows with the creativity. If you look at who scored goals across our team, it’s not just Cortnee [Vine], Remy [Siemsen], Prinni [Princess Ibini], it’s Cortnee, Remy, Prinni, me, Macca, the back line. I think nearly everyone’s scored.

“I think he’s done a really good job of setting a style of play that brings everybody into the game and doesn’t focus on one individual. I think if you put too much responsibility on one individual then I think it can kind of crumble around them.

“Hopefully we can this win to make it his second [grand final] win.”

One player that will go a long way to helping that is Cortnee Vine.

Absent from last year’s final series due to an injury, it is clear when you watch the Sky Blues play just how much of a difference she brings to the side with her pace and the ability to use that pace effectively to create space.

“If you watch Cortnee, she’s so so fast,” Lowe said.

“Her speed, she’s probably one of the quickest in the league. I think that the way we play, Ante really likes to utilise our width and utilise our speed in wide areas.

“Defenders are also pretty… I wouldn’t say scared of her, but just very conservative. They might sacrifice an extra defender to cover her side and that opens up other spaces for us to exploit.

“Even if she’s not on the ball I think she provides options and other gaps to open up.

“She’s definitely missed, but at the same time I think Paige [Satchell] has also got insane speed as well. Both of them kind of bring that cutting edge and that ability to run in behind and kind of turn defences around, which not many players that I’ve seen can do.

“Especially in finals, it’s really good to have Cortnee back in good form.”

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