Netball, In the Jet Stream with Stacey Francis: First win worth celebrating but Jets’ year never really took off

Jess Shaw in action for Yorkshire Jets at Celtic Dragons. PIC: Welsh Netball
Jess Shaw in action for Yorkshire Jets at Celtic Dragons. PIC: Welsh Netball
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We made it! Rounds 13 and 14 of the Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) have come and gone, which draws the 2016 season for the Yorkshire Jets to a close.

The collective netball world rejoiced, however, on Saturday as the Yorkshire Jets gained their first and only win of our 2016 campaign. We had to use every ounce of grit and determination to hold off the Welsh side as we secured a one-goal victory.

We seemed to have left our heads and hearts on the bus following a five-and-a-half hour trip south. We struggled to find flow and made frequent errors throughout the court which gave the Celtic Dragons a five-goal lead after the first quarter.

The second quarter, however, provided a stark contrast as we stunned the home side with a 9-20 quarter, pairing some excellent defensive pressure with execution under the post.

A six-goal lead at half-time and an extended seven-goal lead going into the final quarter (although up by 10 at one point) left everything wondering whether we would be able to maintain the consistency required to finish off a game.

Celtic Dragons did not give up without a fight and with temperatures soaring inside the sports hall in Wales the Jets began to wilt and falter.

As the final whistle went, however, the one-goal difference was in our favour and the mood was both emotional and jubilant after a hard-fought win in our penultimate game of the season.

The final game of the season rolled around quickly and the mood in-camp was positive as we arrived at the Manchester Arena on Monday evening to face table toppers Manchester Thunder.

In front of a vocal and passionate crowd that was just shy of 4,000, we started strongly and built a lead in the opening minutes of the game. However, the table toppers found form quickly as they overtook us to take a three-goal lead at the first quarter break.

Although a close-feeling contest, the home side came out all guns blazing after the break and, galvanized by the electric atmosphere, they led 32-21 at half-time despite an impressive entry to the game by Lucy Harris at GA. Thunder continued to make personnel changes and dominance whilst doing so as they accelerated away from my side with the familiar and unwelcome feeling of careless errors and missed opportunities settling in. The Manchester side led by 20 going into our final period of play for the 2016 season.

We continued to fight until the dying whistle with moments of brilliance still frequent, but our previous positive encounter, the occasion, local rivalry and any emotions left over from our solitary win on Saturday were not enough to sustain us and a quality Thunder side took the victory by 24 goals.

Manchester Thunder did a great job of putting on such a fantastic event in an Arena setting. This is what athletes play in front of week-in,week-out in the ANZ League (in Australia and New Zealand). There was definitely a special feel to the match and I personally thrive under the pressure of a ‘big game’. The atmosphere was fantastic and it is exactly where Superleague needs to be.

The gap between the top and bottom of the table in the VNSL this year is disappointingly large. Being realistic (as always!), we had the top of the table, who have only lost one game all season, and bottom of the table, who scraped a win on Saturday. We were incredibly proud of that win but there have been brief and sporadic moments of brilliance this year and that just hasn’t cut it.

Of the things that I have learnt this season and where my reflections continuously come back to are the really ‘boring’, clichéd coaching sentiments.

We have not been consistent enough. Often the scorelines have not felt reflective of the team’s ability or performance. Our team has experienced great personnel changes and we are, by and large, a young group.

Although I do believe all of these factors contribute, I am wary of making excuses for a team that essentially has under-performed this season. It has been such a shame for the Yorkshire Jets as a franchise given the success of last season, and I truly feel for the fans. Also because we have been so well supported, not only by them but also the board, sponsors and backroom staff.

It is really hard to go out on such a low note when people are aware of the capacity and the talent that we have, but we have just been unable to string things together this year.

The really crucial thing is that if we lose players at the rate Yorkshire Jets did last season then we will struggle to gain any momentum from the positives of this season. The work that is going to be done in the off-season by the coaches and Yorkshire Jets as a franchise, is going to be hard.

It should not be underestimated how bruising a season like the one we have experienced can be. It is hard going on the ego and on the body and, regardless of how young you are or the opportunity that this has been, I don’t think anybody likes to come in and lose week-in and week-out, often significantly.

There is definitely a need for a lot of soul searching from all individuals involved with the franchise to analyse the quality and consistency of what they put in this season whilst the franchise also needs to ensure that they are proactively recruiting and retaining the right players to engage in a robust pre-season programme leading into our next campaign.

There is no escaping my disappointment and it has certainly been hard at times to find the positives, especially as I have never been a glass half-full type person. However, I am relentlessly proud of the girls because there are not many people who could come through the season that we just have and still like netball, each other, and want to continue to spend time together. This is reflective of the characters that we have got who stuck it out and hopefully we can keep those players and build some momentum for next season.

I was asked in an interview with Sky before Manchester Live if, given my historical experiences of success at Superleague and taking on the role of captain this year, whether I have doubted myself and questioned my decision to play for the Yorkshire Jets. My answer to the former, absolutely. My answer to the latter, absolutely not. Winners never quit and although I may not have experienced overarching success, I believe I have added value to my new environment and tried to inspire others by just being me.

My personal aims going into this season were to maintain fitness and stay injury free, strive for a high level of consistency in my on-court performances and to be a positive, patient and persistent captain. How do you think I did?