Manchester Thunder targeting back-to-back Superleague titles
"We want to remember those feelings from the Grand Final and we want to be able to build on them."
By Emma Thurston
Last Updated: 02/01/20 11:32am
As the defending champions, Manchester Thunder are heading into the new Vitality Netball Superleague season with a target on their back and their director of netball, Karen Greig, is eager to break new ground in 2020.
At the Copper Box Arena on May 18, 2019, Thunder completed their third victory of the season over Wasps Netball and ended their five-year wait for another Superleague title.
With the form that both outfits had shown over the course of the season, and produced in their respective semi-finals, the platform was set for an enthralling final. It did not disappoint and was one of the closest and most enthralling in the tournament's history.
"You look back at it, and it really was one of those matches that was a true roller-coaster," Greig told Sky Sports.
"From the first whistle to the last, we were down, we were up, we were down and then obviously we finished on the right side of it which was amazing.
Karen Greig's Grand Final Memories
I very rarely go into the team huddle, I leave the girls to do the team huddle themselves but this time I did, and said that it was all going to come down to which team wanted it the most. Every single one of them looked me in the eye and showed that they were going to do it. They then went out and turned up the gears.
"The emotions at the end of it were great as it was a whole season coming to a head and it was what we'd worked for."
Not only did Thunder go into the match knowing that it was all or nothing with regards to the title, the squad had the added emotional element of it being Kerry Almond's last game.
The defender's Thunder career spanned across 11 seasons and after playing a key role in their 2012 and 2014 title-winning campaigns, all at Thunder wanted it to have a fairy-tale finish.
"It was emotional in that we didn't want her to leave, but we were so happy that we'd won the league to send her off in the right way," Greig said.
"Emotionally, it's one of those moments that you can never prepare for. You know that retirement is coming and ultimately your life is going to completely change from that point on. To be able to finish on a high, it's the best feeling ever.
"Like Kerry I went into the Grand Final knowing that it was my last game and I popped my calf in the first seven or eight minutes," she added.
"I looked at Tracey (Neville) and said that I was not coming off. I hobbled through the game and I couldn't walk for about two days afterwards."
The question now for Greig and for her squad, is what comes next after a title-winning season? The answer is a simple one...
"Thunder haven't ever won back-to-back titles before, as we won in 2012, 2014 and then this year just gone," she said.
"We've never been able to back up that win with a win. I think that it's always the most difficult thing to do, to go back to back.
"We want to remember those feelings (from the Grand Final) and we want to be able to build on them.
There’s no point in approaching the season and trying to win back-to-back titles and, thinking that it’s going to be easy. It’s not.
"You look at the signings that other teams have made and the intent that they are showing to make 2020 their year. Ultimately, it's going to be tougher for us to defend our title but it's something that we're going to really give a good go at, and the girls are up for it."
Within Greig's squad, as well as Almond departing, Liana Leota has left to join Severn Stars for the 2020 season.
Due to the New Zealander being such an integral part of Thunder's attack-end, the director of netball knew that she needed to replace her with the right person and believes she has done that.
"After facing her in the Superleague, Ash (Neal) is a really smart player and a really good playmaker. I think that she'll give us the cleverness that Liana gave us but she'll also give us a bit more height in there," Greig said.
"She has given us headaches previously when she's played against us. She's always the one that we've said that we needed to tie down and keep quiet on court.
"So, to have her in our unit and linking in with the likes of Kathryn, Ellie and Joyce is great. I do think that our shooting unit is probably the strongest in the league and to have someone like Ash feeding that is an exciting prospect."
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Happy with that... good first run out against a VNSL team. Lots of combos tried over the 6x10s connections were really impressive at times , still lots to do but a good starting point to build on . Big thanks to @celticdragonsnetball for your northern hospitality again , good luck for the season. #preseason #manchester #workerbees 🖤💛🐝
Thunder's pre-season commenced with an emphatic 99-40 victory over Celtic Dragons before winning the Mike Greenwood Trophy at their Manchester Invitational pre-season tournament.
The franchise, like all of their competitors, are building towards February 22 and the Season Opener.
This year the opening round will be in addition to the normal 18 rounds, and with matches being determined by teams' 2019 finishing places, it signifies an early Grand Final rematch for Thunder.
"I'm definitely not happy about the way that the first game of the season will potentially impact the rest of the season," Greig said.
"I think that it massively impacts the league and could create some kind of imbalance.
For me, it could almost have been like a Charity Shield day with the top two teams playing for that and then the other teams following in suit after. It would have been fantastic to do something along those lines.
"If you look at how the season finished last year, and how close that top four was, the Season Opener could cause some upsets. Hopefully we won't be on the end of that.
"Taking on Wasps three times in the regular season would be tough for anybody. I'm sure that it will be a great game, I've got a lot of respect for Mel and what she's done with her squad.
"They will be sore coming into this season and will be looking to flip the result that we had in May.
"We were the only team last year to beat them on all of the occasions that we faced them. It's something that we're going to try and emulate again, but it's going to be no easy feat and something we'll have to be more than prepared to do."
After the festive period, Thunder are now back in training and will continue their Superleague preparations against Stars and Sirens at Belle Vue on January 11.
Ultimately, as Greig says, going into a season as the defending champions isn't easy. However, they know exactly what is ahead of them, and will rightly be one of the favourites to take to the Grand Final stage again this July and perhaps gain that elusive second consecutive title.
Sky Sports is your home of netball and live action returns with the Vitality Nations Cup in January 2020. The four-nation competition starts on January 19 with England taking on the world champions New Zealand.