Arriving inside the national netball centre at Loughborough University is arriving at netball heaven. Glistening sprung floored courts stretch far into the distance, whilst small armies of clipboard wielding physios, performance analysts and coaches stomp about in extravagant stash. You will not be surprised to hear that the Loughborough teams are very good and when Oxford arrived here at the beginning of the term to play Loughborough seconds they were whipped.
This evening is the reciprocal home match and both teams are warming up in the musty Iffley road sports centre accompanied by the moans of the weight lifters on the balcony and the sound of torrential rain smashing against the roof and occasionally dripping down onto the court. Loughborough in their snazzy purple dresses look pretty relaxed whilst the Oxford supporters (there are 6 of us) are feeling a little anxious. But Oxford has been working hard since that defeat at the beginning of term. New coach Trish Kilczynski has been focusing on individual play sequences and the team look fit and confident as they assemble on court to take the first centre pass.
The ball moves quickly to WA Sasha Eady and on to GA and captain Sarah Godlee who has some good space on the edge of the circle. Sarah lobs a lovely pass into GS Natalie Redgrave who lands right under the post and scores easily. It’s Loughborough’s centre pass next and they work the ball down well and score. Oxford take the next centre pass and again they score from right under the post. It’s 2-1 to Oxford with Loughborough to take the next centre pass.
In netball after a goal is scored the centre pass which restarts the game is taken alternately by each team. You expect to get a goal from your centre pass so that the score remains neck and neck. Winning the match is therefore a question of breaks, scoring goals not only from your centre passes but intercepting the ball and scoring from the opposition’s centre pass also. Oxford make their first break during Loughborough’s next centre pass, less than 2 minutes into the match. Great pressure from the Oxford defence forces Loughborough to make a wild pass into their shooter who can’t keep the ball on side. Oxford take the back line pass and are fouled as they push the ball up into their circle allowing Sarah Godlee to take a daring penalty shot from the edge of the circle. If Oxford can keep their next centre pass they will go one up. They do, helped by some wonderful circle support from WA Sasha Eady and C Emma McLaren. The crowd (all 6 of us) goes wild. It’s Loughborough’s centre pass now, and again Oxford make a break. Loughborough can’t find any space to pass into and are penalised for holding onto the ball, Oxford score and it is 5-1 to the home team.
From here on the match is delicious to watch. When Oxford take a centre pass they are unstoppable. It is sublime netball. The ball moves in just two swift passes to shooter Natalie Redgrave, who manages to keep her hands on some precariously high feeds from WA Sasha Eady. In contrast on Loughborough’s centre passes there is simply no space for them to move. There is an Oxford defender wherever they look. They pass the ball desperately up and down the court trying to get a feed into the circle only to find each one intercepted by the phenomenal Oxford defence especially GK Hannah McKay. Their shooters are spooked and even when they manage to get the ball they miss. The whistle blows at the end of the first quarter and the score is 12-4 to Oxford. There’s another 45 minutes of play to come, but unless every single Oxford player breaks a leg during that time it’s hard to see how they can possibly lose.
“Heads up Loughborough!” comes the hopeless cry from the away side as the teams reassemble for the second quarter. Loughborough are a really good team, one of the best in the league, but they simply cannot get their hands on the ball as Oxford make turnover after turnover including an exceptional cross court beauty from C Charlie Warwick. Loughborough only score 2 goals in the third quarter compared to 17 from Oxford. As the final whistle approaches Oxford take one last centre pass. The ball reaches GA Holly Youlden on the edge of the circle. She looks around for a quick pass to get the ball closer to the post, but Loughborough have shut down all her options. She’s forced to take a mad shot at goal. Surely she can’t score from right out there? But the ball soars high into the air, and comes down through the ring with a swoosh. It doesn’t even touch the metal. It’s the perfect goal to finish the perfect match from the Oxford team. The final score is 54-20.
The umpires name WA Sasha Eady as man of the match but say the whole team has never looked better. “Often when we’ve umpired here, either the attack or defence has looked a little shaky but today was a real team performance everyone played exceptionally well and the ball moved effortlessly down the court”. Coach Trish Kilczynski is pleased but unsurprised by the score. “They’ve taken everything we’ve done in training onto the court today” she says. “We made 64 turnovers; we just need to be careful to hold onto everything we intercept”. The netball Varsity match is usually close but with the Oxford team on such good form they have to win this year, don’t they?
PHOTO/ ALEXANDRA GODLEE