The recent general Murray league bye presented the perfect opportunity to assess each team’s chances heading into the final stretch of the season.
With only six rounds to go the football finalists are all but cemented, but the race for sixth in the netball is certainly wide open.
All we know for sure is that it is going to be a thrilling climax to the year, so let’s get straight into where I think each team will finish.
While Cobram is a mathematical chance to taste finals action, the task is simply too great. The Tigers are two matches and close to 45 per cent behind sixth-placed Moama. And with the Magpies set to get stronger with the return of key players, it is a bridge too far for the Tigers. They will fight hard though and are a smoky chance to cause an upset or two. That leaves us with a top six that has been set since Mulwala replaced Cobram after round three, a remarkable feat of consistency from the top half of the competition. However, certainty does not equal complacency, with all six sides likely to move positions before the end of the season.
Record: First, 12-1, 273.4 per cent.
Run home: Rumbalara, Nathalia, Barooga, Mulwala, Deniliquin, Echuca United.
Key player: Josh Evans has returned from injury and picked up where he left off. The forward has 33 goals in his past five matches, with 49 in 10 games for the season. Fills his boots against the weak sides and creates scoring opportunities for his teammates against the best of the best.
Prediction: Second. A tough draw to finish the season will cost the Blues the minor premiership, as they will surely drop one of their four clashes with other finals-bound teams. Need a big win against Rumba this week to keep their percentage high enough to put pressure on Nathalia. Will be a force to be reckoned with come finals time, with hunger for a first flag since 2000 burning bright.
Record: Second, 12-1, 253.49 per cent.
Run home: Tongala, Numurkah, Finley, Cobram, Congupna, Moama.
Key player: In my eyes, despite having stars on every line, Nathalia’s strength is its tall timber. It makes Brett Vallender’s return to the field integral to the Purples’ chances. With Brodie Ross, Jason Limbrick, Bailey Bell and Jarrod Maskell they are formidable. Add Vallender, if he returns, and they move into unstoppable territory.
Prediction: Minor premier. Only the looming clash with Numurkah should trouble them, with injured players sure to be back for the final round contest with the Magpies. Plenty of opportunities to build percentage coming up as well means the Purples should once again sit atop the table before the season finishes. Years of being the hunted looked to have been taking its toll, but with only one loss (after the siren) so far, Nathalia has to remain favourite for the premiership.
Record: Third, 9-3, 148.99 per cent.
Run home: Congupna, Cobram, Moama, Numurkah, Rumbalara, Finley.
Key player: Nathan Parker is the man that keeps on giving for the Lions. Yes, Ash Froud, Hamish Hosking and Ross Ansaldi are legitimate guns, but Parker has a knack of popping up at the perfect moment when that trio is well held. A premiership medallion would be just reward for the ageing warrior.
Prediction: Third. While the Lions have the title of best win of the season by defeating Nathalia, they also can lay claim to worst defeat of the year by backing that up with a loss to Deniliquin. Froud is destroying teams and if he stays on the park Mulwala will secure third position. The draw favours the Lions as well, because if they drop both games to Moama and Numurkah, they will have the opportunity to chase percentage to finish the year.
Record: Fourth, 8-4, 227.82 per cent.
Run home: Cobram, Finley, Numurkah, Rumbalara, Moama, Congupna.
Key player: Will Gorman’s fitness has been under a cloud for what seems like the entire season. His output has still been magnificent, with 38 goals in 10 games, and I shudder to think what he can do when operating at 100 per cent.
Prediction: Fifth. It may seem harsh, but when you look at the fixture the Hawks and Eagles play exactly the same teams on the way home. It means their fortunes should come down to how they play against Moama, and I think Barooga will drop that game. The Hawks will be unlucky to fall any further too, with the second-best defence in the league and four of the top 10 leading goal-kickers, but in a season full of strong teams that’s just how it goes.
Record: Fifth, 8-4, 150.47 per cent.
Run home: Moama, Congupna, Rumbalara, Finley, Cobram, Numurkah.
Key player: Nic Denahy has played all 12 matches for the Eagles and found his way into the best seven times. A young, goal-kicking midfielder, Denahy’s potential is massive and he looks to be hitting his straps at the right time of the year.
Prediction: Fourth. The Eagles are the side with the most upside in the competition. With so many new additions this season, their best is yet to come. If Guy Campbell can muster his troops into the second week of the finals series, I can see them going all the way to the big dance. This weekend is huge against the Magpies and the result will shape where they finish.
Record: Sixth, 8-4, 136.02 per cent.
Run home: Echuca United, Tongala, Mulwala, Deniliquin, Barooga, Nathalia.
Key player: Tyler Jones is a scary proposition for any opposing team and has returned from injury to kick 12 goals in three games. Booted more than 70 goals in each of the past three seasons, and while he will not reach that mark this year he is capable of snaring a big haul in a huge game.
Prediction: Sixth. Moama’s draw is tough, but it avoids first-placed Numurkah, which is a bonus. Cannot see the Magpies climbing, but they will give every side they face above them a good scare, and could peak at exactly the right time. Jones’ return allows him to ease into his work before helping the Magpies explode in the finals. Will go as far as their youth will take them, because their best players are as good as any in the league.
In the mix
Moama: 12-0, 242.4 per cent.
Tongala: 10-2, 142.5 per cent.
Numurkah: 10-2, 129.2 per cent.
Echuca United: 9-3, 147.8 per cent.
Deniliquin: 8-4, 141.6 per cent.
Mulwala: 5-7, 77.2 per cent.
Congupna: 4-1-7, 86.8 per cent.
Nathalia: 4-1-7, 78 per cent.
Finley: 4-8, 93.1 per cent.
Cobram: 3-9, 81.3 per cent.
The Murray Netball League ladder (below first place) has been blown wide open in recent weeks after the race for finals threatened to stagnate mid-season.
Moama cannot put a foot wrong and Charlotte Long’s charges are runaway favourites to secure an unbeaten season on the way to the flag.
However, anything can happen once the pressure of the finals cauldron is applied and nine other teams in the competition remain legitimate chances of playing for the right to take the Magpies on.
Tongala and Numurkah are suffering from the injury Blues (pun well and truly intended), but the pair will certainly play finals and I’m tipping the former to keep second spot.
Echuca United stumbled in its last match without coach Elle Florance on the court and it means the Eagles will round out the top four unless they can upset Moama.
Deniliquin has hit its straps in recent weeks with huge wins against Nathalia and Mulwala, and the Rams will back themselves to do plenty of damage to the teams above them in the final stages of the year.
That leaves five sides (Mulwala, Congupna, Nathalia, Finley and Cobram) fighting tooth and nail for sixth.
The young Lions have had plenty of chances to put their stamp on the spot, but they continue to struggle against teams they should beat.
Congupna has won three straight matches and is soaring up the table, while the form of the Purples, Cats and Tigers continues to fluctuate.
For mine, The Road’s run home (four top six sides) will work against them, but I think Sam Gill’s troops will knock off the Lions this weekend and hold onto their newly-found finals ticket by their fingernails.
It will undoubtedly be a photo finish.