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Preview: 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague season

The 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) begins on 12 February in what is set to be the most exciting season to date.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, the decision was made to host the VNSL behind closed doors across two venues this season, to enable strict and consistent COVID-19 protocols to be in place for all games, supported by an extensive season-long testing programme across the league.

But while supporters won’t be in attendance, a new, landmark broadcast deal with Sky Sports will see every match shown across their channels so viewers won’t miss a moment of the action.

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For the first time in VNSL history, 11 franchises will battle it out to reach June’s Grand Final with all of the drama, despair and joy we’ve come to expect along the way.

And ahead of the Opening Weekend, let’s look at some of the interesting facets of the 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague season.

Different structure

Eliminating home and away fixtures in favour of two central venues presents a different challenge for clubs as they can’t feed off the vociferous support from the crowd. Players will also be in a controlled environment with extensive COVID-19 protocols that could become fatiguing over the course of the season.

Some franchises will feature twice in one round which will test players’ fitness and in order to better manage their welfare, matches will be played over 12-minute quarters rather than the usual 15 minutes. The shorter court time could change how coaches navigate games from a tactical perspective and potentially benefit some clubs who might have struggled towards the latter stages of a contest.

VNSL newcomers

Franchises have come and gone since the league was founded in 2005 but there have never been more than 10 sides competing at the elite level in the UK. Leeds Rhinos are the latest addition to the division from a region in the country that hasn’t been represented since Yorkshire Jets disbanded in 2016. New clubs are always exciting with Strathclyde Sirens, Severn Stars and Wasps Netball all joining in 2017 and more recently London Pulse in 2019.

Rhinos recruited Northern Ireland boss Dan Ryan as their head coach and added England’s most-capped player Jade Clarke to their roster, alongside another Vitality Rose in Vicki Oyesola. They secured the signature of menacing goaler Donnell Wallam, who dominated the Gold Industry Group West Australian League and was a training partner for Suncorp Super Netball Grand Finalists, West Coast Fever. Former Australian Diamonds mid-courter Madi Browne was also set to join but has deferred her contract until 2022 due to injury.

Returning Vitality Roses

The Vitality Netball Legends Series saw a couple of players return to court on home soil for the first time after a prolonged absence. Layla Guscoth’s last appearance for the Roses came in the second match at the Vitality Netball World Cup where she ruptured her Achilles, while Beth Cobden had done her ACL twice since last playing for England in the 2018 Commonwealth Games final. And both are now back in the VNSL for 2021 – after spending time at Suncorp Super Netball outfit Adelaide Thunderbirds – as Layla rejoins Team Bath and Beth Cobden teams up once again with Loughborough Lightning.

Accompanying Layla at Bath will be Serena Guthrie, who settled into an ambassadorial role with the Blue and Gold for the curtailed 2020 campaign as she took a break from netball. The England centurion is back on court this year, though, and completing the high-profile additions to Anna Stembridge’s squad is Eboni Usoro-Brown. The Netball World Cup bronze medalist stepped away from the sport after the 2019 tournament in Liverpool and gave birth to her daughter Savannah but she’s now ready to go again.

Foreign imports

The expanding profile and elevating standards of the league mean it’s becoming an even more attractive destination for some of the game’s most exciting talent. Unfortunately, Madi Browne won’t be lending her experience to Leeds Rhinos quite just yet but there are plenty of intriguing overseas recruits across the franchises.

Among them is Ine-Mari Venter, who arrives at Saracens Mavericks after stints with Suncorp Super Netball clubs, Melbourne Vixens and Queensland Firebirds. The South Africa international is a dynamic shooter and has evolved her game to become a viable option at goal attack as well. Her compatriot Lefebre Rademan has joined London Pulse and she will provide flair and athleticism to a vibrant attacking end that includes another SPAR Proteas player in Sigi Burger.

Wasps Netball are aiming to regain the title they lost to Manchester Thunder in 2019 and their cause is strengthened by the acquisition of Jamaican starlet Gezelle Allison. She dazzled viewers with her displays for the VNSL All Stars in the Legends Series, transferring the skills she honed on the basketball court on to the netball stage. Elsewhere, towering defender Annika Lee-Jones made the move from Australia’s Sunshine Coast Lightning to Celtic Dragons, while Surrey Storm brought in the VNSL’s first Zimbabwean in Felisitus Kwangwa.

Head to the Vitality Netball Superleague website for fixture details.

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