Gabi Simpson and her Queensland Firebirds teammates have one focus leading into their finals campaign – stay connected.
“If as a team in attack and in defence we’re connected, we’re winning more ball and our transition and our holding of the ball will be a lot more successful,” she said. “So that’s a big thing for us and that’s not only on court being connected, but having an understanding of each person’s role in the team and how that’s going to best service us going forward.”
The Firebirds have a tough road ahead in their bid to be the first team to win back-to-back premierships in the ANZ Championship, but Simpson believes it is well within their reach.
“We have a lot of belief and trust in each other, both on the court and off the court, which is just so important,” she said.
“And if you look at individuals in our team, no one is going to take a backwards step. If everyone’s accountable for their performances, all 12 of us, then no one is willing to just sit back and wait for the next weeks to unfold, everyone is continually improving themselves and everyone is willing to do what they need to do to put us in the best position to win another grand final.”
It is a determined and focussed attitude from the 23-year-old who originally hails from Sydney’s eastern suburbs. As a kid in Randwick, she began playing netball alongside a girl in her class.
“I thought ‘Oh, I’d love to give that a go!’” she said. “And also I just wanted to be her best friend! I played every position back then, but I loved a bit of Goal Attack, because I loved the glory of trying to get the long shots in”
It was a bit of a shock when, as a 20-year-old, Simpson received a call from Firebirds assistant coach Tracey Robinson asking her to join the team.
“It was pretty phenomenal actually, I had no expectations of being signed to an ANZ club that year,” she said. “Tracey just made me feel extremely at home, simply through the conversation I had with her. And then following that up it was Rose [Jencke, head coach] and Geitzy [captain Laura Geitz] all calling me and it was like a big warm hug, even before I’d said that I wanted to come up here!"
"And then once I’d moved up, it was such a nurturing environment, where all the older players really welcomed me in and looked after me. It was like moving into a whole new family.”
Team culture is an area that is consistently talked up in netball and there is plenty of evidence to show that on-court success flows once off-court culture has been addressed. Simpson believes the key to her team’s success in this area is the constant work that’s being done on it by everyone from the coaching staff to the senior players to the new recruits.
“Throughout the four seasons that I’ve been here, there’s always been a fantastic culture,” she said. “But every year we’re trying to find something extra to take us to that next level. And that’s something just really special to be a part of – no one here is resting on their laurels. Everyone can play netball, but it’s just about creating an environment where you can be the best player you can be, but also be the best person you can be as well.”
Being the best person she can be is something that is very important to Simpson and she believes the balancing of her physiotherapy studies with her netball is something that is helping to achieve that. And while the game is growing ever more professional and the demands on the players increase, Simpson hopes young players will continue to invest in their future through study and work away from the court.
“I hope it’s still a big part of who we are as netballers for a long time,” she said.
“Because there’s a big emphasis on creating good people, not just good players and having that well-rounded lifestyle."
"Which I guess right now we can afford, being a semi-professional sport – time is made for study and work. But I hope in the future that time is still made, because I think it’s really important for individuals and also for the sport, in keeping us grounded.”
After an incredible 21 game winning streak, the Firebirds had a difficult patch towards the end of the season, with a close loss to the NSW Swifts and a tough trip to New Zealand to take on the unbeaten Southern Steel without captain Laura Geitz and vice-captain Clare McMeniman. The bye that followed and the week off due to finishing at the top of the Australian conference have been important for the team.
“We had a bit of a patch where Geitzy and Clare were out, so we hadn’t had our team together before that,” she said. “So we’ve used the weeks since the bye to really regroup and re-focus ourselves on the grand final and the trophy that we are after. We’ve definitely taken another step up and really intensified over the last few weeks.”
Despite the external pressures that can come from being such a successful team striving for greatness in this final ANZ Championship season, Simpson insists that it is the pressures the players in the team put on themselves that are felt the most intently – and that applies at all times, not just in finals.
“Every game we’re going out to win and we put that pressure on ourselves every week,” she said. So whether we’re going for our 21st win or our first win of a streak, there’s still the same amount of pressure that we put on ourselves. We’re learning every week and finding different things to improve on.”