Vitality Netball Superleague: Karen Atkinson on keys to Strathclyde Sirens' standout season
Strathclyde Sirens are approaching Round 20 having won more matches in a season than ever before; with a young age profile, a full-time programme and astute coaches leading them, the future looks bright for Scottish netball and their Superleague franchise
By Emma Thurston
Last Updated: 16/06/21 10:14am
Strathclyde Sirens may not be taking part in this year's Vitality Netball Superleague play-offs, however, the 2021 season should still be recorded as a positive, and potentially pivotal, one in their history.
During pre-season, the franchise's technical director Karen Atkinson told Sky Sports that at Sirens, they didn't bang their own drum enough about the quality of the full-time programme they have in Scotland.
Now, with just one game left of the 2021 Vitality Netball Superleague season, it's clear that the whole of the netball community know about Sirens' progress and the fruits of their programme.
As the Scottish Thistles head coach Tamsin Greenway said in her Sky Sports column the other week, Sirens are a team that so many have 'taken to heart' and embraced over the course of the last 19 rounds.
Fans of other teams have regularly taken to social media to say that Sirens are their 'second favourite team' and Sirens' own fans are ardent and proud of their unit's development.
The signs of Sirens' progress were there from the start; despite losing their opening round match to Manchester Thunder, they won the first quarter against the 2019 champions and fought throughout. After that, a victory over Severn Stars completed their first double-header weekend and got them off the mark.
When Round 4 arrived, a 35-30 result against London Pulse secured their third win in succession and that broke new ground for the franchise; never before had they tasted victory for three rounds in a row.
The positivity continued, draws with Mavericks and Wasps were both heartening and frustrating, before wins over the both in the corresponding fixtures, fortified their belief further.
Under the guidance of Atkinson on a match day, Lesley MacDonald and Claire Maxwell during the week, Sirens' players have flourished. Young athletes are maturing, while less experienced Superleague players have taken to regular netball like ducks to water, and the results have been wholly positive.
Vitality Netball Superleague results - Strathclyde Sirens
|Total matches played||18||18||3||19|
2020 was an incomplete season due to COVID-19 and one match remains in the 2021 season
"A lot of the things that we have been doing in Scotland in the training environment is paying off for the players on the court," Atkinson told Sky Sports.
"It's a two-pronged approach, mainly from Sirens because that's where the players get most of their training, but also from the Scottish Thistles side with Tamsin Greenway coming in.
"A lot of players have felt a real change in how training sessions are delivered, the intensity that's required, and what we're demanding of them in the additional sessions they have to do each week too.
"It was two years ago when I first went up to Scotland and I've noticed a huge shift in terms of the pressure that players are putting on themselves and each other in training. That's coming from both the starters, the training partners and the wider squad. That's a massive element."
We'll return to wider squad members and training partners in due course, but for now, respect must be paid to Sirens' exceptional defender Towera Vinkhumbo.
Vinkhumbo, who was on the books at Stars previously, arrived late as an injury-replacement for Zanele Vimbela and quite simply, she has been a revelation.
On a weekly basis Vinkhumbo has made the best attackers in the league falter. The Malawi international is top of league's defensive charts, with 59 interceptions and 90 turnovers.
"Towera was a fortunate and brilliant signing that we were able to get, considering it was so late in the day. We feel quite blessed that we were able to bring her in and how well that defensive unit has worked.
"She's come in and realised that she can play with that structure in front of her and understand her role within it. It allows her to play at her best, and it complements her style."
Crucially for Sirens, the large amount of turnover ball that Vinkhumbo and Emily Nicholl have gained, has been converted through to goal. The duo's output has been fortified by Taylor Cullen's work-rate in front of them too.
"Also, our young shooters have massively stepped up," Atkinson said as she continued to share some of the keys to Sirens' continued development.
"The combination of that, and the couple of English mid-courters that have come in - Beth Dix and Taylor Cullen - has been superb.
"Beth and Taylor have not really got a look in at other Superleague franchises, but it only takes one door opening, for people to see how good they are."
The third part of Sirens' mid-court unit is their captain Gia Abernethy, and the 27-year-old Australian has come into her own this year.
On court, Abernethy has the engine to work harder than anyone else until the 48th minute. She has the ability to choose between soft hands and bullet passes in order to feed her ever-improving young shooters and she will hassle her opponent forever and a day.
Off court, the former Adelaide Thunderbird is another critical key to Sirens' success in 2021.
"I think that what people don't realise about Gia, because there are a lot of teams that have some really good leaders, is that Gia is an exceptional leader," Atkinson said.
"She is one of the best that I have come across. I've played in many teams; I've been in leadership positions myself and I've coached other teams too, and she really is a very special leader.
"She's managing to bring that group together and make them all feel really valued and part of it, whether they're on the court, on the bench or one of our training partners. She's been massive."
Speaking to Abernethy herself, she strives to lead by example, and ensure sure that if she's asking others to reach a standard, she's doing it (or surpassing it) herself.
"If I can bring the most energy on a match day and get everyone around me wanting to try their hardest to get that win, then it's a good day at the office," she said.
"I would never ask someone to do something, or work to their limits, if I wasn't committed to doing that myself."
Abernethy is also incredibly conscious about checking in with the players who aren't getting a huge amount of game time. Throughout the year, Atkinson and has largely fielded a consistent seven, and Abernethy understands the impact that can have on others.
"The ones that are playing, you know how they're feeling because that is obvious, that's easy to deal with," she said. "It's the players who don't get on and aren't that vocal, it's really important that you check in with them.
"There's a reason that we're doing really well this year, it's because of all of our bench players are pushing all of the starting seven. Our extended squad are pushing them too, and that's obviously having a domino effect and making us improve."
A fantastic attitude, togetherness, hard work & trust in the plan! What a brilliant squad to coach alongside the amazing @lesleymac6 @BrownieMaxwell @RachNelson1 @morris_elena. 1 more game to attack! Best of luck to all 4 teams in the finals - they'll be cracking contests! 2/2— Karen Atkinson (@kazacko) June 15, 2021
When Leeds Rhinos Netball were allocated the points for their remaining two Round 20 fixtures, after a positive COVID-19 result within their squad, a play-off position was taken out of Strathclyde Sirens' hands.
Atkinson's reaction, which she shared on social media, praised the team's attitude, togetherness, hard work and trust in their plan. The question now is, how do Sirens continue to make the same strides forwards again next season?
"It's about keeping as many of the squad together as possible," the technical director said honestly.
"There are standout teams that have standout players, but actually, consistency of a player group and learning from one year to a next, there's a big correlation between that and success within the Superleague. I'm very hopeful that we will be able to get that continuity."
When Atkinson took on the role of technical director at Sirens, it was because she was attracted by the "amount of potential" that she would be working with. Now, a little over two years on from being appointed, that potential is starting to be realised and it seems that there's still a lot more to come from the Scottish franchise.
Sky Sports is your home of netball. The Vitality Netball Superleague continues on Sunday, with four matches back-to-back streamed on the Sky Sports YouTube channel from 12pm.