The 2019 season of the Greater Open Championship in Newcastle has already been billed as “one of the most competitive” in the league’s history, and Forsythes’ two-goal win over defending champions West Leagues Balance 1 has driven that point home.
Wests, who finished last year’s campaign 14-0 before defeating arch-rivals Souths, last tasted defeat in the championship in the eighth round of 2017, when the Lions knocked over the eventual trophy-holders 42-36. Since then, Wests went 672 days undefeated.
Thanks to Forsythes, the defending champions will now start their 2019 title defence with a mark in the loss column. For Traci Baber, who has been at the helm of the team since its inception, the performance was potentially “Forsythes’ best in seven years”.
As a leftover summer heat belted down at the National Park courts, Wests took an early lead in the season opener. The defending champions edged a 9-8 lead heading into the first break, and looked set to keep out the challenging Forsythes.
The ladies in blue had other plans however, as circle defenders Keeley Mullins and Veronica Smith restricted Wests to just seven goals. Forsythes took control of the clash at the other end of the court, with Sabina Gomboso and Bronte Magin combining for 11 key finishes to take the lead into the second half.
The three-goal margin proved a hurdle too far for Wests as the game stretched on, though Tracey Bagg’s outfit clinched another winning quarter 9-8 to draw the gap back to just two.
Wests pulled themselves up, nearly drawing level as promoted duo Natarlia Bridges and Tarsha Hawley netted eight goals in the final quarter, but Gomboso and a returning Magin, who had made way for new recruit Erin Asquith at the half-break, secured eight of their own to see out the winning lead.
“It was a fight of attrition in the heat today, and was about who could keep their girls standing on court for the longest,” Baber said after the 35-33 victory. “In the first game of the season no one is match fit, and adding in the heat makes it really, really tough. I’m super proud of how well my girls did.”
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“Bronte [Magin] especially had an outstanding game, she came back on for Erin after being off for 25 minutes, and sunk those two amazing goals right at the end that we desperately needed. She really stood tall.
“Veronica Smith and Angela Williams were outstanding too, I think our defence won us our game. Our attack was a bit off, and missed some goals we wouldn’t normally miss. Our defence kept us in the game, and got a few key turnovers at just the right times.”
The 68-goal game, the lowest combined tally the two teams have recorded since West Leagues Balance joined Newcastle’s top grade, was a stand-out anomaly in terms of both club’s glimmering attacks. Baber believes it’s a perfect show of what’s going to be a “great year” for the league.
“It was a very low scoring game, we would normally score close to 50, but it shows the talent of both teams,” the Forsythes boss said.
“Both teams had exceptional defence today, in the circle and mid-court, and I thought it was a really high quality game, really high quality.
“I think this is going to be a great year for the Greater, I think it’s going to be the strongest and most even comp we’ve had. I think gone are the days where we had Sabina with the tall timber. Every single team has a ‘tall timber’ this year, and everyone has exceptional defences too.
“You won’t see too many high 60s this year for sure. It makes every team train hard, and put the effort in, which is fantastic. Anyone can beat anyone and that’s exactly what you want for the top grade.”
That’s not to say that Baber doesn’t believe her team has the quality to keep up. In fact, she believes this is the year that the side can end their run as bridesmaids in the Open Championship.
“I think this is the strongest squad I’ve had in the whole seven years we’ve been in the competition, and we have a lot of versatility as well,” she said.
“A couple of minor changes is all we need, and all the girls are finally believing that we can win it all. Our number one aim is to get that shield at the end of the year.
“This year my only focus is the Forsythes team, and we’re very determined to win the grand final. Been there four times, I don’t want to be a bridesmaid again.”
Also in the Newcastle netball season opening round, Junction Hotel Stella got their year off to a flying start with a 50-47 win over West Leagues Balance 2, while Souths Lions scored a statement victory over BNC Whanau, 54-34.
Finally, Maryville Tavern Alize joined the winner’s circle with a 48-40 win over the new-look Nova Queens Wharf Thunder squad, who signed former Souths stars Brooke Fennings, Georgia McVey, and Eliza Lewis in the summer.
CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS: Souths, Maryville, Junction, Forsythes (1-0), Wests 1, Wests 2, Nova, BNC (0-1).