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Collingwood’s cakewalk?

Collingwood’s April Brandley, Caitlin Thwaites and Kim Ravaillion at the zoo this week. Photo: Joe ArmaoThe tune is that famous one, the words already learnt and rehearsed a few times during the pre-season. Good old Collingwood is new Collingwood in a netball sense, and before Saturday’s opening round, the overwhelming expectation – and, in some cases, fear – is that the inaugural Suncorp Super Netball premiership will indeed be a cakewalk.

Individually, yes, they do know how to play the game. Collectively, too, six of the Magpies have international experience, including current circle defenders Sharni Layton and April Brandley, first-choice midcourt duo Madi Robinson and Kim Ravaillion, and shooter Caitlin Thwaites. Add four-Test wing defence Ash Brazill, robbed of more internationals by knee troubles, and potential future Diamond Alice Teague-Neeld at goal attack and well, the barrackers will surely be a-shouting on grand final day in June.

This week in Sydney, Fairfax Media asked the eight captains about Collingwood’s favouritism and, not surprisingly, only Robinson – who defected from the Melbourne Vixens in one of the biggest inter-club moves of the recruiting free-for-all that played right into the wealthy hands of the facilities-rich new trio of franchises backed by football clubs – demurred. What? Little ol’ us?

“I think every team has recruited quite well, whether it’s keeping the majority of your core group together or getting some players from the trans-Tasman [league],” Robinson insisted. “So, no, I don’t think so, but I guess wearing the black and white there’s always going to be external pressure on us. It’s part of the name.”

The game, then, ahead of Saturday night’s derby against the Vixens, is to pick a weakness, given that Fever stalwart Shae Brown provides midcourt depth for the most imposing of the three strong expansion teams completed by the Giants and Sunshine Coast. “Just to have eight starting-seven players from last year in their team, and also the fact that they’ve got six Diamonds in there – pretty solid players all over the court,” said Giants leader Kim Green.

“Solid” is also the first adjective used by new Swifts captain Abbey McCulloch, before a merciful auto-correct. “I guess solid’s not the right word, they’ve got a phenomenal team,” she laughs. “They’ve got pretty much the starting seven for the Diamonds and so if they aren’t favourite then I’m not sure what’s going on.”

Something, it would seem, would need to go horribly wrong. A string of injuries, perhaps? “You’d think so, but they’ve still got to manage all those superstars,” said former shooting great Cath Cox. “How do you go about managing that, people that are normally on court sitting on the bench? How are they gonna cope with that? Realistically they should win the competition with the talent that’s there, but the coach has got a big job ahead of her to try and make that gel.”

West Coast Fever skipper Nat Medhurst is enough of a veteran to have played in the previous national league back in the mid-2000s, and was also around for the start of the ANZ Championship in 2008, when the Melbourne Phoenix and Kestrels merged to form the Vixens. But the supposed super-squad finished an underwhelming fourth. (Footnote: the flag duly arrived in season two).

On paper, says Medhurst, it is hard to see the Magpies being beaten, yet the triple world champion is also quick to reference the original Vixens’ first-year flop. “They were dubbed the dream team, and it didn’t go so well for them. So it’s great that Collingwood are favourites, but I don’t think that the premiership’s a given for them.”

If it turns out to be, and this is the start of a period of dominance, is it healthy for so much talent to be concentrated in one team? Netball ‘s acting chief executive Marne Fechner is understandably keen to hose down the concerns, the cherry-picking having been facilitated by the lack of a player draft and the free-market advantages the well-resourced and connected can exploit.

“I know there was a lot of commentary around that when the teams were first lined up, and the reality is they look fantastic on paper, don’t they, the Collingwood Magpies?” Fechner said. “But the reality is there is some amazing talent in a range of other teams across the board and that’s the exciting thing. In pressure situations, young athletes who are in a great team environment grow an extra couple of inches, and they do things that are unexpected.”

It seems they will need to, even if Thunderbird Erin Bell is happy to dial up the hype. “Yeah, we’re trying to put as much pressure on them as possible,” she said, smiling. “Definitely they’ve got the name, they’re the favourites, so now they’ve got to bring it.”

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