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Netball - 16. January 2012.

Cathedral City Lighter FastNet Grand Prix

A night to celebrate new beginnings and relish the season ahead.

The newly formed Yorkshire Jets were the success of the tournament making it to the final the hard way while Tracey Neville’s coaching career is in its infancy, she guided her squad to silverware (or in this case, glassware) at the first time of asking.

The blaring music coming over the sound system heighten the senses of the crowd that built gradually by 6.30pm when the lights went out ahead of the first game between the two conference winners. The feeling within the hall was that people were ready. A spotlight fell on each player as they ran onto court to be introduced to the crowd, a procedure that possibly wasn’t necessary for these educated spectators but rather to jazz things up for the television audience.

Surrey Storm won all their games on the way to the Finals and seemingly began the night where they had left off the weekend before. New signing Pamela Cookey was paired with fellow England international Rachel Dunn in the shooters although it was impossible to tell that the Goal Attack was just beginning her Storm career such was the seamless way she fitted in.

Likewise Manchester based Northern Thunder finished their Conference undefeated which was a warning to other franchises as many changes have taken place in their camp during the off-season. A new coach has taken the reigns, England captain Jade Clarke remains in New Zealand playing with the Northern Mystics and five new faces have joined the setup.

Being a shorter form of the game there is no time to ease into Fast Net, the team must be scoring at a high frequency during each quarter and then exploit their powerplay in the designated quarter. The score line was close throughout the opening encounter, as both teams opted to play the ball into their shooters and take the single point. When Thunder had their powerplay quarter Storm tried to stifle their opponents by keeping the ball and slowing down play. A tactic that made sense as the value of each score is increased; it didn’t go down well with supporters who had come to see fast-flowing, high intensity Netball, not a textbook training drill. Thunder won the match 27-21 meaning they were through to the Grand Final while Storm would have to play the winners of the Eliminator game that was next on court.

The Yorkshire Jets were launched with great enthusiasm in August 2011, replacing the Leeds Carnegie franchise in the league. This young group of girls performed exceptionally well in the Northern Conference eventually losing to Thunder in the final only after added time. Goal Attack Rachel Shaw was named player of the Conference to add a cherry on top of a pink and purple treat.

Celtic Dragons will play all their home league games in Cardiff this season starting with their opener against Team Bath on the second day of competition. The Welsh girls where nowhere to be seen before the Finals began while other teams milled around the cafés of the Sports Park. When they did step on court their compact group of travelling supporters showed small can be mighty as they shouted encouragement and instructions from the first centre pass. Both teams took some time to get into the match but the Jets forged a lead after mistakes in the mid-court by the Welsh. The Dragons, determined they wouldn’t be easily slain, starting putting up three pointers at every opportunity. Spectators enjoyed their attempts to play for points and as the long shots dropped in the score leveled. The final quarter action sea-sawed between the two sides enabling the crowd to their feet. One point separated the teams at full time with the Jets, playing tighter Netball, made it through to the Grand Final Qualifier 23-22.

It would be too straightforward to say that Jets against Storm was a battle of youth versus experience as both elements have the benefits and drawbacks. Jets displayed no sign of battle scars off the back of their fight with the Dragons and again this one was close to call. Again Storm tried to slow the attack by keeping the ball and wearing out the patience of their energetic opponents, which again was not well received, even by home fans. Storm failed to find the net during crucial stages of play and were unsuccessful with the long shot. Jets stuck to their task, determinedly reaching for every ball and their tenacity was rewarded with a place in the Grand Final after defeating Storm by 30 points to 28.

Fast Net games are 24 minutes long but the speed they are played at meant the Jets welcomed an extended break before their third match. The crowd was entertained by extraordinarily flexible dancers tying themselves in knots, wrapping ankles behind heads and bouncing to the music while they did so. A more traditional, if amusing version of bopping on the spot and throwing hands in the air was demonstrated by the mascots from Storm and Thunder who did their best to encourage spectators to dig out some cheesy moves with the promise of a big block of Cathedral City for their efforts. The spectacle of Netball was not forgotten during this reliving period as tweets spun into life on the big screen ensuring the non-dancers in the crowd had their ten seconds of fame too.

Although the final score of Thunder versus Jets doesn’t tell the full story of the match, the down side of the competitions format was obvious in the Grand Final. The Jets had fought hard to get to this stage and even though the games are shorter in length, they are higher in intensity than most Netball games. They left everything they had on the court but ultimately Thunder were fresher so made fewer mistakes. Tracy Neville’s team approached the final in a professional way, getting the points on the board when they could and keeping things tight in defense. The Jets niggled and disrupted them meaning the performance was far from flawless but with a final score line of 35-21Thunder laid down their mark for the season in an inimitable way.

Fast Net isn’t designed to take the place of Netball but rather heighten the skills of players in an entertaining way that ensures the game is attempting to keep up to speed with innovations pursued by other sports such as Cricket. For the most part players looked ready for the league campaign with a few in particular performing in a way to worry their opponents. The Jets GA Rachel Shaw once again played out of her skin, constantly looking for work and pairing seamlessly with Shooter Jo Walker. Sara Bayman has wonderful ball control and can carry and move the ball on in one flowing motion for Thunder. Officials named her teammate Laura Malcolm as player of the Finals which was difficult to argue against as the WD bridged the gap between attack and defense all evening and stubbornly interrupted play by making a nuisance of herself. She also managed a few interceptions along the way too.

This was the inaugural Fast Net competition and proved to be a useful and entertaining precursor to the Fiat Superleague season that involves the same eight teams that fought it out to be named Cathedral City Lighter champions. A competition in its infancy that, like a good cheese, will mature with distinction in the years to come.

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