The 11 sides competing for Vitality Netball Superleague glory – 2021 season preview

The Vitality Netball Superleague will bring its entire competition to two ‘centralised’ hubs to ensure there will be no stopping Europe’s premier netball competition.

The 11-team competition will take centre court for the first time on Friday, 12 February (UK time) behind closed doors in Wakefield – the league’s first-ever hub.

The competition will then move the famous CopperBox Arena in London from round 10 until the season concludes on Sunday 27 June.

So, before round 1 gets under way, The Inner Sanctum took a look at each club and how the squad is shaping up.

Celtic Dragons

Sophie Morgan will lead again. Celtic Dragons v Team Bath – Netball – Saturday 29th February 2020 – Cardiff Archers Arena – Cardiff © www.sportingwales.com- CREDIT IAN COOK

What to Expect: The only Welsh side in the VNSL struggled in their 2020 matches prior to the cancellation of the season, finishing 0-3. With a young nucleus of players, the Dragons are building for the future, and have added experience to the squad during the offseason to bolster the veteran presence.

Goaler Laura Rudland will add some much needed playoff experience after plying her trade for Team Bath in recent years, and Jamaican international Rebekah Robinson has re-committed to the Welsh side. The International Superleague All-Star and Commonwealth bronze medallist was named as co-captain for the Dragons in 2021 and the Cardiff side will also be hoping she can ease the scoring woes that have cruelled the side in years gone by.

Australian boom recruit Annika Lee-Jones has made the move from the Sunshine Coast Lightning in the Suncorp Super Netball League. Standing at 197cm, she will add immediate impact with her ability to play at both ends of the court, giving head coach Tania Hoffman a myriad of options and flexibility for the side going forward.

Expectations for the Cardiff side have cooled since their Grand Final appearance in 2014, but the long term prospects remain high as the foundations are built with a view to be a competitive side in the not-too-distant future.

Key to the Season: Addressing the lack of experience in the side was vital during the off-season and Hoffman has successfully done so. With their young core now complemented with high quality senior individuals, don’t be surprised to see the Celtic Dragons improve up the ladder in 2021.

Squad: Sophie Morgan (GA/WA), Rebekah Robinson (GA/GS), Abigail Tyrrell (GD/GK/WD), Amy Clinton (GA/GS), Annie O’Rourke (GD/GK/WD), Annika Lee-Jones (GK/GS), Shona O’Dwyer (C/WA), Laura Rudland (GA/WA), Leila Thomas (GD/GK), Lucy Howells (GD/GK), Morganne Dunn (GS/GA), Rebecca Baker (WA/GA), Victoria Booth (C/WA), Clare Jones (GK/GD), and Christina Shaw (GD/GK/WD)

Leeds Rhinos

What can Donnell Wallam offer for the Rhinos?

What to Expect: Leeds is a new addition to the Vitality Super League in 2021 with some famous names and some fresh faces lining up for Leeds in 2021. Fans will need to be patient – this new side will take a bit of time to build those on and off-court connections.

Once that happens the Rhinos will be tough to stop. And Coach Dan Ryan is working overtime to ensure the Rhinos are raring to go from the first centre pass.

The Rhinos were dealt a cruel blow on the eve of the season with superstar Diamond Madi Browne omitted from the squad for 2021. While Leeds will being the Aussie back in 2022, Coach Ryan is now scrambling to find a final player to take to Wakefield.

Despite Browne not being able to compete – citing a knee injury and COVID-19 restrictions – Jade Clarke is still in the side. She’s a legend of the game and a creative midcourter who will cause headaches for opposition defensive players. The Rhinos’ feeding into the goal circle will be nothing short of spectacular.

The shooting circle is going to look dangerous as up and coming Perth shooter Donnell Wallam adds height and strength to the shooting line up. Out front, Britt Coleman and Rhea Dixon will likely play goal attack – both capable of sweeping drives to open space for themselves or Wallam.

Rhinos have a lot of flexibility with a wealth of talent signing on. Coach Ryan has the luxury of allowing players to have a break and not being afraid that the performance standard dropping.

Key to the Season: As we saw in the rise again festival, the Rhinos were very a stop start side so far. it’s important that they build those foundations throughout the early part of the season. On paper, the side looks set to compete and is capable of a memorable first season in the top grad but it will need to come together quickly otherwise Leeds won’t get the results they are looking for.  

Squad: Jade Clarke (C/WD), Vicki Oyesola (GD/GK/WD), Brie Grierson (WA/GA), Rosie Harris (C/WD), Britt Coleman (GA/GS), Rhea Dixon (GA/GS), Sienna Rushton (GA/GS), Amelia Hall (WA/C), Fi Toner (GD/WD/GK), Paige Kindred (GK/GD/WD), Michelle Magee (GD/WD/GK), Emily Hollingworth (C/WD), Donnell Wallam (GS) and TBA

London Pulse

What to Expect: London Pulse were building toward a competitive season when last year’s tournament came to an abrupt end in round 4. The Pulse had come off the back of an emphatic 69-38 win over Celtic Dragons in round 3 when they were due to face Team Bath. The undefeated sides were about to find out where they stood in terms of the premiership race – but the game was cancelled.

Head Coach Sam Bird has spent the entirety of Europe’s lockdown ensuring her playing group is primed and ready for the season. If nothing else, the 2021 season will come down to a mental battle for Pulse with a mix of experience and youth now suiting up for the Central London outfit.

Last season, Coach Bird attracted South African goaler Sigi Burger to the club and she made an immediate impact. The holding shooter was able to get the Pulse out to good leads – in particular in the Battle of the South and against her former club Surrey Storm – but consistency throughout matches seemed to be an achilles heel for Pulse.

In 2021, the Pulse’s attacking set up looks to be one of the most versatile and exciting. South African Goal Attack Lefebre Rademan joins the mix to cause plenty of headaches for opposition with her shooting and passing ability inside the circle.

In the midcourt, Coach Bird will have a plethora of options to weigh up. Ashleigh Dekker, Adean Thomas and Michelle Drayne return while the club adds centre/wing attack Isabel Stibbs this season.

The Pulse is one of the most diverse squads with internationals from South Africa, Jamaica, Northern Ireland and England. The experience and knowledge within the playing group is set to make Pulse extremely versatile and adaptable.

Key to the Season: Consistency. With all the excitement of a new franchise in 2021, it is easy to forget London Pulse only joined the competition in 2019. Coach Bird will be looking for her side to compete right across the four quarters week in, week out. The Pulse’s squad is full of exciting talent and will be looking to take a few clubs off guard – don’t be surprised if Pulse is a dark horse in 2021.

Squad: Halimat Adio (GK/GD), Sigi Burger (GS), Ashleigh Dekker (C/WA), Michelle Drayne (C/WD), Zara Everitt (GD/WD), Funmi Fadoju (WD), Lindsay Keable (GD/GK), Lefebre Rademan (GA/GS), Ellie Rattu (WD), Kira Rothwell (GA), Isabel Stibbs (C/WA), Olivia Tchine (GS/GA), Emma Thacker (GA/GS) Adean Thomas (WA/C) and Monique Thompson (GA).

Loughborough Lightning

Nat Panagarry is back to lead the Lightning

What To Expect: The Lightning had a slow start to the 2020 season, going 1-2 before the season was cancelled.

With a fairly young side at the disposal of coach Sara Bayman, the Lightning moved to sign some established talent to bolster their ranks in 2021. Commonwealth Games gold medallist Beth Cobden is a signing that will no doubt boost the team this season.

Ugandan export Mary Cholhok is back for her third season off the back of her hugely influential debut year where she picked up the Golden Shot award, and three games in 2020 showed her continued improvement.

She will be critical to the Lightning’s chances, as, when her and GA Ella Clark are firing, the Lightning cause serious scoreboard pressure for defenders.

Other key cogs for the Lightning include captain Natalie Panagarry and Australian import defender Samantha May.

Coach Sara Bayman knows how to get the best out of her players and the Lightning will no doubt be determined to secure their first title after coming up short in recent years.

Key to the Season: Even early on in the season, the Lightning were crippled by injury. Veteran Hannah Joseph was a notable absentee in the early rounds of 2020 while captain Natalie Panagarry also missed out after round one with a foot fracture. This led to the team struggling to get a consistent squad on the court. Ensuring the team stays fit and healthy will be key to ensuring the Lightning are contenders.

Squad: Ella Clark (GA, GS), Beth Cobden (WD, C), Mary Cholhok (GS), Beth Gabriel (GA, GS), Alice Harvey (GK, GD), Hannah Joseph (WA, C), Suzie Liveseidge (C, WA), Samantha May (GK, GD), Lauren Nicholls (WD), Jasmin Odeogberin (GD, WD, GK), Natalie Panagarry (C, WD), Lucy Parize (GA, WA), Annabel Roddy (WD, GD, GK), Hannah Williams (C, WA).

Manchester Thunder

England Rose Amy Carter is back in 2021.

What to Expect: The Manchester Thunder will again be the hunted with a star-studded line-up.

Technically still the reigning champions, the Thunder will enjoy the benefit of England trio Laura Malcolm, Ellie Cardwell and Amy Carter returning as well as the Malawian shooter Joyce Mvula.

The 2021 campaign will be with a focus to the future, with only captain Emma Dovey and Malcolm turning 30 this year.

The loss of the 2020 season halted the Thunder’s momentum, who had won four games from four to start the campaign.

Behind the scenes there’s more experience as well, with former title winning coach and England mentor Tracey Neville returning as a performance operations director.

Cardwell will be keen on continuing with her terrific shooting record (125 goals at 85.62 per cent), while Mvula will also be handy again (101 at 87.07).

Key to the Season: Youth with success. The Thunder have a lot of young players at their disposal, and getting them some time off the bench while also pursuing more success will be crucial in years to come.

Squad: Rebekah Airey GD/GK, Eleanor Cardwell GA/GS, Ella Carly Standring C/WD, Amy Carter C/WD, Emma Dovey, GD/GK, Laura Malcolm C/WD/WA, Ella McCormick GD/GK/WD, Joyce Mvula GS, Loreen Ngwira GD/GK, Caroline O’Hanlon C/WA, Lois Pearson GA/WA, Emilia Roscoe GA/GS, Berri Samara Neill GA/GS/WA, Millie Sanders GD/GK, Alicia Scholes C/WA

Saracens Mavericks

Saracens Mavericks’ very own Razia Quashie plays for England.

What to expect: The seven-time Grand Finalists should be up there in finals calculations once again in season 2021, as their strong spine and leadership group should hold firm.

Saracens proved they were still a force in 2020 when they won two of their three games before the COVID interruption. It’s no surprise they were the second-best defensive side in this short period – the experienced New Zealander Jo Trip still remains as one of the competition’s best wing defenders due to her ability to win loose balls.

Alongside Trip is the exciting prospect of Razia Quashie, who is developing into an exhilarating intercepting GK with exquisite footwork. Alongside the reliable Jodie Gibson, Quashie could form the most dynamic one-two defensive combo in the Vitality Super Netball League.

With a strong mid-court section led by captain Sasha Corbin, the Mavericks should have enough firepower across the court to be a threat to most sides.

Key to the season: With their defence and mid-court reliable and solid, much will be made about Saracens’ scoring options. George Fisher’s incredible 131 goals across three games to start the 2020 season will be sorely missed, as the English goal shooter is off to play for the Southern Steel in the ANZ Championship.

Fisher’s replacement is the South African Ine-Marie Venter. Venter arrives following a lack of opportunity in her stints at the Melbourne Vixens and the Queensland Firebirds in the Suncorp Super Netball League. Alongside Kadeen Corbin’s intensity in goal attack, Venter has the chance to lift the Maverick’s scoring rate and benefit off the Corbin sister’s ingenuity around the net.

If Saracens can fill out enough young improving talent to balance their experienced spine, then expect the Mavericks to fire in 2021 and challenge for the premiership.

Squad

Bella Baylis (WA/ C), Britney Clarke (GS/ GK), Steph Collard (GD/ GK/ WD), Kadeen Corbin (GA/ GS), Sasha Corbin (WA/ C), Beth Ecuyer-Dale (C/ WD), Chloe Essam (GA/ GS/ WA), Jodie Gibson (WD/ GD), Georgia Lees (C/ WA), Gabby Marshall (C/ WD), Dani McFarlane (WD/ GD), Razia Quashie (GK/ GD), Jo Trip (GD/ GK/ WD), Ine-Mari Venter (GS/ GA), Aliyah Zaranyika (WD/ GD)

Severn Stars

Paige Reed returns for the Stars.

What to expect Now entering their third full season in the Vitality Super Netball League, Severn will be looking towards gradual improvement under coach Melissa Bessell.

Kiwi mid-courter Liana Leota will add stability and pace through the middle as captain of the Stars. Alongside Nia Jones, the pair should ensure Severn constantly mixes it with the top stars.

Having only won one game in 2020 before the league’s early finish, Severn need more development to come from each end in 2021.

The ever-reliable Georgia Rowe was second on the goals scored tally after four games last season with 151 to her tally. If Rowe can continue as a focal point, the Stars have an avenue to match-winning totals.

Partnering Rowe will be either goal attack Paige Reed or Lucy Herdman, who is known for wowing crowds with her precision range shooting.

The lack of signings during the COVID break will hurt Severn, who struggled to land big fish before the end of the signing period.

Key to the season: If Severn are to improve and work their way up the ladder towards a maiden finals berth, they’ll be relying on one international signing pulling through. Fijian Adi Bolakoro could also be the missing link in their defensive set-up.

Severn’s weakness lies in their defence – in late 2020 the Stars announced they had secured the services of the athletic and speedy Bolakoro. If the stars align, Melissa Bessell has enough keys to ditch their constant finishing spot of sixth place.

Squad: Ama Agbeze (GD/ GK/ GA/ WD), Adi Bolakoro (GD, GK), Chloe Carchrie (C/ WA), Chloe Cubello (GK/ GD), Bethan Dyke (WA/ C), Ellie Gibbons (GA/ WA), Lucy Harris (C/ WA/ WD), Lucy Herdman (GA/ GS), Hannah Howl (GK/ GD), Nia Jones (WD/ C), Liana Leota (WA/ C), Ella Powell-Davies (WD/ C/ GD), Paige Reed (GA/ GS), Georgia Rowe (GS), Jane Taylor (GA/ GS/ WA).

Strathclyde Sirens

Credit; Sirens.

What to Expect: The only Scottish side in the VNSL had a 1-2 start in the cancelled 2020 season, with the team continuing to build upward since their inaugural season in 2016. In 2021, the Sirens will be aiming for their best finish since their inception.

Towera Vinkhumbo was a brilliant pickup for the Glasgow side who have not struggled to score in recent years, but have instead been unable to limit the scoring of their opposition. Coach Lesley MacDonald will be hoping the Malawi international can spearhead the revitalisation of their defensive play in 2021.  

The Australian presence in the squad has been bolstered with the addition of young talent Helen Taylor, who joins captain and star mid-courter Gia Abernethy. The former Adelaide Thunderbird will be leading from the front for the second consecutive season. She represented the Sirens in the Vitality Netball Legends Series between the All-Stars and Roses, and has represented Australia at the under 21 level.

The identity of the 2020 team has returned for 2021, with continuity a key in the continued growth of the Sirens going forward. Bethany Goodwin and Lynsey Gallagher will continue their fruitful partnership in attack which produced 55 points per outing in limited games last season.

Key the Season: The Sirens’ defensive overhaul will be the vital component of their identity going forward. With the inclusion of Towera Vinkhumbo from rivals Severn Stars to replace the injured Zanele Vimbela, the Scottish side has the squad to compete for a playoff position.

Their mid-court and attacking continuity has the Sirens in good stead, but their success will be dependent on limiting the scoring runs of some of the star attackers of the competition.

Squad: Gia Abernethy (C/WA/WD), Bethany Dix (WA/C), Bethany Goodwin (GA/GS), Emily Nicholl (GD/WD), Emma Barrie (GS), Helen Taylor (C/WA/WD), Lynsey Gallagher (GA/GS/WA) Niamh McCall (GS/GA/WA), Nicola McCleery (WA/C), Towera Vinkhumbo (GK/GD), Caitlin Pringle (GK/GD), Emma Love (WA/GA), Sarah MacPhail (GD/WD), and Taylor Cullen (WD/C)

 Surrey Storm

Leah Middleton in the Duck Egg Blue.

What to Expect: There is promise in this  side, but Storm need to ensure they aren’t throwing away the ball.

Aussie defender Leah Middleton (GD/GK) looks promising, with her read on the play coming down the court getting better by the quarter. The most important thing for the storm is to re-build connections lost. There has been a big turnaround of players since the clubs last full season in 2019, with the likes of Shadine Van Der Merwe no longer at the club.

It’s going to be tough, with the outbreak of COVID-19 in England, Storm haven’t played a competitive match of netball for almost 12 months, with the 2020 season only having three games.

Key to the Season: The key for Storm is clinical passing. They need to take the three seconds to find the best option and, like the old adage, play possession netball. They may need to take an extra pass or so to get it into the goal circle because against the more experienced teams, those long bomb passes aren’t going to work.

Squad: Mikki Austin C/WA/WD, Karyn Bailey GA/GS, Niamh Cooper WD, Emily Gulvin C/WA, Nicole Humphrys C/WD, Ellie Kelk GA/GS, Sophie Kelly GA/GS/WA, Felisitus Kwangwa GD/GK, Emma Magee GA/GS/WA, Leah Middleton GD/GK Yasmin Parsons C/WA, Amlia Priest Francesca Wells GA/GS, Lauren Tait GD/GK, Grace Sullivan GD/GK/WD

Team Bath 

Sophie Drakeford-Lewis. Team Bath v Manchester Thunder 01/03/19 www.claregreenphotography.com

What to Expect: The most successful team in the history of the competition, Bath have once again put together a strong roster for season 2021. 

When COVID unfortunately put an end to the 2020 campaign, Bath had played three games and won them all, with a goal difference of +45, the highest in the competition. 

Last season’s captain, Australian Kim Commane, rounds out a star-studded squad that will look to pick up where they left off at the conclusion of the 2020 season. 

Team Bath have talent all over the court with four of it’s players named in the recent England Roses squad that took on an International Superleague All-Stars team. 

Serena Guthrie co-captained the England side that also included fellow mid-courter Imogen Allison as well as defender Layla Guscoth and shooter Sophie Drakeford-Lewis. 

The opposition also boasted a blue and gold team member in Summer Artman. 

Put simply, Bath have too much quality to not be considered title-contenders and the team will be gunning for a record sixth championship. 

Key to the Season: The Blue and Golds have not missed out on a top four position since 2015.

If anything can derail this side, it will be the weight of expectation due to the amount of sheer talent that coach Anna Stembridge has to work with.

Team Bath will go in as one of the favourites to take out the title in 2021 and rightly so, but to do so it will need to perform under the pressure of being one of the best teams in the competition. 

Squad: Imogen Allison (WD/C), Summer Artman (GK/GD), Kim Commane (GS/GA), Betsy Creak (GS/GA), Chartie Curtis (GK/GD), Sophie Drakeford-Lewis (GA/GS), Layla Guscoth (GK/GD/WD), Serena Guthrie (C/WD), Kirsty Harris (WA/GA), Hannah Passmore, (GS/GA), Tash Pavelin (GK/GD/WD), Abi Robson (WD/C), Jess Shaw (C/WA), Rachel Shaw (WA/GA), Eboni Usoro-Brown (GK/GD)

Wasps 

Experienced defender Hannah Knights has retired after 15 seasons in the top grade.

What to expect: After the departure of Jade Clarke to the newly formed Leeds Rhinos franchise, the two-time Superleague champions are introducing some new faces, alongside experience and their new Jamaican signing Gezelle Alison in order to start afresh after their tough start to the short 2020 season.

There is no doubt that Rachel Dunn will secure the GS bib in their first game, with the new Caribbean GA Alison on return from the Netball Legends Series fighting for the GA bib with long-term Wasp Katie Harris. They will be complemented by an experienced mid-court, a tough fight for WA is between Sophia Candappa and Iona Christian lies ahead. Although if Amy Flanagan takes the WD bib, a space at centre opens up, with tough choices lying ahead for head coach Mel Mansfield. 

Defensively, after the retirement of Hannah Knights, England Rose Fran Williams brings the experience at the end of the court at GD with Josie Huckle most likely to start at GK. New signings Ella Powell-Davies and Lily-May Catling will also be looking to push for that starting seven. 

Key to the season: The absolute key to this season to ensure Rachel Dunn gets as much ball as possible to make sure they WIN matches. It is a simple thing, but it is so important to their success. In order to change their tough start to the previous season the turnovers need to increase and get the ball down court to their superstar shooter who shot at over 85 per cent last season. 

Squad: Sophia Candappa (C/WA) Katie Harris (GA), Josie Huckle (GD/GK), Amy Flanagan (C/WD), Fran Williams (GK/GD/WD), Ella Powell-Davies (GD/WD), Iona Christian (WA/GA), Lily-May Catling (GK/GD/WD), Gezelle Allison (GA/GS) and Rachel Dunn (GS)

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