Refreshed, fearless Firebirds up for the fight
NO FEAR. That's the approach the Queensland Firebirds are taking into the new Suncorp Super Netball season.
The mantra has been borne out of a disappointing 2017 campaign, when, as the back-to-back reigning title-holders of the old trans-Tasman ANZ Championship, they missed finals.
Having been the benchmark for so long, Firebirds skipper Gabi Simpson explained the pressure to maintain the rage in the new-look eight-team domestic league had gotten the better of them.
"Last year we spent a lot of time playing out of fear ... fear of losing," said Simpson, the Diamonds' Commonwealth Games silver medal-winning wing defence.
A period of four losses in five games mid-season had put paid to their finals hopes.
"If you look at the last three games of last season when there was no pressure on winning or losing we had three phenomenal games," Simpson said of wins over Adelaide, Giants and Swifts.
"We want to channel that and put it into the start of this season - make sure we play that fearless netball for the whole season.
"We need to be able to focus on ourselves, in every moment. The wins will hopefully take care of themselves."
Simpson admitted it "was tough to sit there and watch finals" last season. "It's something most of us hadn't experienced before," she said.
"Particularly watching the other Queensland team (the Sunshine Coast Lightning) win the grand final on our home court. That really hit hard.
"We've used a lot of that hurt to drive us this season.
"We learnt a lot about ourselves ... and we've used this off-season to build the resilience among the group.
"We've talked about how we want to be seen, what we want to be this season.
"That's put us in really good stead coming into this first game. We know we want to be hitting the court absolutely firing. There's no time to just slowly improve."
And make no mistake, the Rose Jencke-coached Firebirds are out to reclaim a stranglehold on the competition.
"We always set out to win the championship," Simpson said as the Firebirds prepared for their first-round encounter against the Swifts in Sydney tomorrow. "That's the goal."
While still led by herself and vice-captain Caitlyn Nevins, Simpson has been impressed by the attitude of the young Firebirds in the squad.
"I think last year one of the key things was we didn't explore our depth before we started the season," she said.
"We had (centre) Mahalia (Cassidy) go down (needing a knee reconstruction) and we didn't really have any back-up plan as to how we were going to fill that spot.
"This pre-season we've worked really hard to create depth and we have 10 players who are more than ready to step on court and make an impact."
Tara Hinchliffe and Kim Jenner, in particular, have taken ownership of the defence.
"Their netball smarts have improved out of sight," Simpson said of the young pair.
They will, of course, also welcome back decorated goal keeper and former captain Laura Geitz after she missed last season following the birth of son Barney.
Geitz returned to competitive netball while representing Australia on the Gold Coast, alongside Simpson.
"It's great to have Geitzy back ... the experience that she brings," Simpson said.
"She understands the fire that's needed to win games and win the season.
"I'm just really excited to be stepping back out on court with her in purple for the first time this week."
Up the other end will be three-time competition MVP and goalscoring record holder Romelda Aiken.
"We definitely like having her around," Simpson says of the superstar Jamaican goal shooter.
And certainly the entire competition would not be the same if international players such as Aiken were barred from playing in the Super Netball. It has been mooted - after England's Games triumph.
"When we set out to create Suncorp Super Netball, it was to create the best domestic competition in the world and that's exactly what we've done," she said.
"Part of that was bringing the international players over. They've added great flair to the game. You're playing against the best players, week in, week out.
"We've seen international teams improve a lot ... (but) isn't that great to force the Diamonds to take another step, another level we can play at?"
It's been an extra long pre-season, with Games taking centre stage. But, for the non-international players, it's finally showtime.
"They've trained the house down," Simpson said of her Firebirds teammates.
"It's been great that we've been able to work on those things we wanted to improve on from last year.
"But I think the girls are sick of it and they just want to play some netball.
"They've watched enough."
Coach: Roselee Jencke
Last season: 5th
Odds (Ladbrokes): $10
Squad: Gabi Simpson, Gretel Tippett, Caitlyn Nevins, Jemma Mi Mi, Kim Jenner, Laura Clemesha, Mahalia Cassidy, Romelda Aiken, Tara Hinchliffe, Laura Geitz.