The Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) reached its conclusion on Sunday 27 June as Loughborough Lightning were crowned champions for the first time in their history.
Over four months of intense competition took place in unique circumstances, with the hard work of players, coaches, staff and volunteers enabling netball to get back on our screens.
And thanks to Sky Sports, fans were able to witness every pass, goal and intercept from all 11 teams live.
Here is the story of the 2021 VNSL season on and off the court…
Every year a fresh crop of exciting, young talents emerges in the VNSL and 2021 was no different. In the opening round, Surrey Storm defeated London Pulse and their Vitality Player of the Match was then 16-year-old Sophie Kelly making her VNSL debut in stunning style. Pulse themselves boast an impressive cast of prodigious youngsters, including the sensational Funmi Fadoju. She recorded a league-high 84 deflections and the fourth most intercepts with 38 on her way to being awarded Young Player of the Season and a place on the Roses Futures programme. Her Futures colleague Sienna Rushton also enjoyed a great year as Leeds Rhinos made the top four in their inaugural campaign despite losing Sky Sports Fans’ Player of the Season Donnell Wallam to injury early on. And that success was partly down to the excellent work Rushton deputising for her. Saracens Mavericks finished just below Rhinos, and they featured another promising shooter in Britney Clarke whose accuracy under the post captured the attention of many.
The Fadoju™@FadojuFunmi's trademark defensive skills are on show in the opening quarter of tonight's match 🔥
— Vitality Netball Superleague (@NetballSL) May 10, 2021
Organising a season during a pandemic presented numerous challenges and the need to consider many factors that would ensure the safety of everyone involved. Therefore, it was deemed necessary to stage all the fixtures at two central venues rather than the traditional home and away format. While supporters were absent for most of the campaign, this setup allowed Sky Sports to broadcast all the games live to the thousands watching at home. In total, there were nearly two million streams of VNSL action on YouTube in addition to those watching on Sky’s linear channels. Viewers could analyse and agonise over all the matches, and gain knowledge of players across the league in a way that has never been possible before. And the coverage can be found on demand here for anyone seeking to relive an epic campaign.
Fight to the finish
It was a fiercely competitive fight for the semi-final positions that continued until the final round. The regular season ended with the top three teams all on the same points after Loughborough Lightning beat Team Bath Netball to place above them on goal difference – a dress rehearsal for the Grand Final. Manchester Thunder also leapfrogged Bath with their victory against Strathclyde Sirens, who had been part of an almighty battle for fourth spot. Two-time champions Wasps looked like the favourites to claim it for long periods before Saracens Mavericks overcame them and Bath in successive matches. Mavericks then surprisingly lost to London Pulse to put it in Leeds Rhinos’ hands, and they ultimately secured the spot after accruing six points courtesy of a pre-determined rule in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.
When athletes push their bodies to the limit to compete at the highest level, there can be the risk of suffering serious injuries. Recovering from those setbacks takes enormous mental and physical strength, which 2018 Commonwealth Games champion Jodie Gibson showed in abundance. She made her long-awaited Saracens Mavericks debut in their Round Four win over Celtic Dragons and played a key role in her side’s two incredible victories over Grand Finalists Team Bath Netball. Bath were beaten in Sunday’s final by Loughborough Lightning with Beth Cobden delivering another remarkable display at wing-defence. The Vitality Player of the Season has suffered two ACL injuries in recent years, which caused her to miss a home World Cup and blighted her spell with Adelaide Thunderbirds in Australia’s Suncorp Super Netball league. One of those injuries occurred in a Grand Final with Loughborough Lightning, so it was poetic to watch Cobden lift the trophy in 2021 after a Vitality Player of the Match-winning performance. She was up against former Thunderbirds teammate Layla Guscoth, who has also recovered from a serious injury sustained in the second match of the 2019 Vitality Netball World Cup. Even though she was on the losing side on Sunday, Guscoth was included in the All Star VII after posting the highest number of turnovers in the league with 95, as well as the second most intercepts and deflections.
What an inspiration @BethCobs1 is to us all.
— Sky Sports Netball (@SkyNetball) June 27, 2021
Safety is key
There was a clamour for the VNSL to return after the 2020 season was curtailed by the impact of the pandemic, but it had to be done safely and securely. There was an extensive testing programme in operation and strict COVID-19 protocols in place to help protect everyone involved in the delivery of the competition. As a result, there was only one positive case recorded across the four and a half months and minimal disruption to the schedule considering the immense challenges faced. It is a credit to the work of everyone involved in the league from the organisers to the players and while Loughborough Lightning are deserved winners, simply reaching the end is a success for so many people.
Watch every game back on Sky Sports’ YouTube channel!
Head to the Vitality Netball Superleague website for more reaction.