“This is our last goodbye,
I hate to feel the love between us die,
But it’s over …”
American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley certainly wasn’t lamenting the end of a trans-Tasman netball competition when he penned his 1995 heartbreak standard, Last Goodbye. But the mournful opening lines echo the sadness many netball fans on both sides of the Tasman feel at the death of the ANZ Championship after nine years.
It’s been an emotional few months for those of us who follow – and love – the greatest netball competition in the world, which came to an end on Sunday in a pulsating double extra-time grand final triumph for the competition’s most successful side, the Laura Geitz-led Queensland Firebirds. It was “finishing on a high” writ large. The euphoria is dissipating though, replaced with melancholy at what is lost and uncertainty at what lay ahead.
In late May, news came that the ANZ Championship, which began in 2008, was being killed off; to be replaced by new domestic leagues on both sides of the ditch. Here, the new eight-team all-Australian league, with new franchises aligned to AFL clubs Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney and the NRL’s Melbourne Storm, comes complete with a landmark deal for primetime, free-to-air TV coverage.
Since the start, the competition was subsidised by NZ pay TV broadcaster Sky Sports, so a paid deal is considered Netball Australia’s Holy Grail. The governing body has also said it wants to provide more opportunities to emerging Australian talent – something not possible with just five teams.
From February next year, the elite level of Australia’s number one female participation sport will be on free-to-air TV every Saturday night – and players can expect a big pay day, even full professionalism … within half a decade.
But with the good, came the potentially bad, such as rumoured rule changes. Although it has denied they have been demanded by the broadcaster, Netball Australia is contemplating major rule changes, including the introduction of two-point scoring zone for part or all of matches, coach-initiated time-outs and soccer-style shoot-outs to find a winner in drawn games. Fans have responded with a “chorus of no” to such changes, even accusing the body of selling its soul to the TV devil. The netball world awaits an announcement on rules any day.
But while the future is uncertain – but no doubt, exciting – the ANZ Championship as we know it is history. But what a glorious history.
The competition was billed as “netball as you’ve never seen it” and while on the court, it delivered a blinding highlight reel of athleticism and skill, it also changed the way the game of netball is played, lifted professionalism here and in New Zealand and in Australia, raised the profile of the sport to such an extent that 10,000 grand final tickets were sold in 30 minutes. And knowing if girls “can see it, they can be it”, it also inspired a generation of Aussie girls to believe they could be professional sportspeople. That to #playlikeagirl was a good thing.
No, it wasn’t perfect – the dominance of the Australian franchises, which ultimately precipitated the split, being the most obvious example – but it was ours and whether it was Network Ten in the early days, SBS 2 or Foxtel on a Sunday afternoon, for nearly a decade we soaked up every moment. And talked about it as we warmed up at netball training. And shared videos on social media. And we’ll never forget it.
Thanks for the memories, ANZ Champs …
“The Harrison Hoist”, round 8, May 2012
When Northern Mystics goal defender and then-Silver Fern Anna Harrison clean “rejected” shots from Melbourne Vixen shooters Kate Beveridge and Karyn Bailey (now Howarth) with the help of goal keeper Jessica Moulds, who provided a lift; rugby lineout-style, the netball world gasped. It changed the game. At the time, then-Vixen and Australian Diamond defender Bianca Chatfield, who had a box seat to the feat from the other end of the court – described it as “just awesome.”
She also revealed that the Vixens and Diamonds had experimented with a similar tactic, but hadn’t perfected it. The Mystics won the match 49/45. While the rules now say defenders can’t “deflect a shot once the ball is on a downward flight towards the ring”, the move is still technically legal, as long as the ball it hit on “the up”. Most importantly, it inspired defenders to think outside the box.
Sharelle McMahon kisses Mo’onia Gerrard, round 3, 2008
Just 13 games into the competition, then-Melbourne Vixen shooter Sharelle McMahon kissed her opponent and Diamonds team mate, Adelaide Thunderbird defender Mo’onia Gerrard, on the cheek as they waited at the transverse line for the whistle. McMahon later explained it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to try and put Gerrard off, a tough and uncompromising defender.
The move has been immortalised in one of netball fans’ favourite GIFs and any highlight reel is incomplete without it. The tactic didn’t work though, the Thunderbirds won by a goal, with Gerrard best-on, and the pair became part of netball folklore. Every time it’s aired, it’s also a reminder to juniors that the game is about fun and friendship, as well as fierce rivalry.
The Kiwis finally win one, 2012 grand final
When NZ side, the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic – filled to bursting with then-Silver Ferns Irene van Dyke, Leanna de Bruin, Casey Williams (now Kopua) and Laura Langman – beat the Melbourne Vixens for the title in 2012, netball fans rejoiced. No one wanted a lopsided competition and after the NSW Swifts, Vixens, Thunderbirds and Firebirds won the first four premierships, concern was growing.
Sadly, 2012 was the last time a Kiwi side would play in an ANZ grand final. This season, the Noeline Taurua-coached Southern Steel – which went through the regular season undefeated – looked like breaking the grand final hoodoo, but went out of the finals in straight sets.
“That” final minute, 2015 grand final
Until Sunday, the greatest game in ANZ Championship history was the 2015 grand final, when through the brilliance and leadership of Laura Geitz, the Firebirds somehow snatched victory in the dying moment of the grand final, after the NSW Swifts had dominated all day.
With the Firebirds just moments away from a third successive grand final failure, code-hopper Gretel Tippet reluctantly shot and scored, putting the Birds up for the first time all match, before Geitz somehow got a tip on a ball destined for her opponent, Caitlin Thwaites with eight seconds to go. As commentator Kelli Underwood exclaimed at the time: “Pure euphoria! It’s highway robbery!” Goosebumps for days.
Double extra-time and “Sharni shoulder shove”, 2016 grand final
They said the 2015 finale couldn’t be bettered. But on Sunday, it was, with the single most exhilarating, remarkable game of netball ever witnessed in the ANZ Championship. The Firebirds’ heart-stopping, double extra-time win over the Swifts was a fitting end to the competition, showcasing the relentless defensive pressure and midcourt physicality the league has pioneered.
Almost unnoticed, the Swifts’ circle defenders unveiled a new rebounding move, with goal keep Sharni Layton using the shoulder of her goal defence Maddy Turner to “boost” herself up for rebounds against the Firebirds’ 196cm goal-scoring machine, Jamaican Romelda Aiken. A move completely within the rules, Layton positioned herself beside her partner, without infringing on either shooter, and “shoved” herself off Turner’s shoulder to get extra elevation … and it worked numerous times. The “Sharni shoulder shove” is yet another innovation the ANZ Champs can claim.
Maria Tutaia, any game, any season
For netball purists, Northern Mystics and Silver Ferns goal attack Maria Tutaia is as close to perfection as a player gets. Naturally gifted, but continually honing her craft off the court, the gorgeous 29-year-old plays with poise and grace – and has a long-range shooting style to make defenders weep; complete with ‘swishing’ hand and an almost-arrogant turn of the back.
While she represented the Silver Ferns at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and 2007 Netball World Cup in Auckland, it was the ANZ Championship that introduced the brilliance of the 188cm superstar from Tokoroa to the Australian netball public – in their lounge rooms. And didn’t we love watching her play every week. Like Diamond shooter Nat Medhurst, Tutaia is one of the few shooters who regularly sinks shots from outside the “easy arch” under the post, so she could benefit from a two-point scoring zone, being considered for next year’s Australian league. Rumours point to her potentially switching to the NSW Swifts, so fans may not have seen the last of Maria on their TV screens.