The Melbourne Vixens will be playing for more than just the championship trophy when they take the court in tomorrow’s Super Netball grand final, they’ll be playing for the entire state of Victoria.
For nearly four months the Vixens have been away from their family, loved ones and friends back home, after they were forced to relocate to Queensland to compete in this year’s Super Netball season as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
That sacrifice has not come easy, as viewers of Nine’s broadcast of tomorrow’s grand final will see when the Vixens talk about being separated from friends and family in an emotional package to air prior to the game (you can watch that video at the top of this article).
But a win against the West Coast Fever would make those sacrifices worthwhile, especially for retiring Vixens star Caitlin Thwaites.
“There’s been so much uncertainty,” Thwaites told Wide World of Sports.
“The level of excitement and pride of what we’ve managed to do together this season, I think this grand final is absolutely like no other.
“For us we would be so excited for all of the hard work that’s gone into this and everything that’s been thrown at us. For myself and Tegan [Philip] that will be our very last game as well, so we want to finish on a high with some great netball.”
Thwaites has been a key attacking weapon for the Vixens this year, and she will draw on all her experience from nearly 20 years in the game on Sunday. But even she has felt unprepared for what has been an extraordinary year.
“It’s been hard to be able to process it. Initially when the season was greenlit, we were all so grateful to play the sport we love when we know so many people are not able to at the moment,” Thwaites said.
“There’s this huge sense of gratitude, and being up here in Queensland, we don’t have the same level of restrictions to the extent Victoria do. But then the other side of that is it’s been really hard to be away from your family and support network, and to know that they’re doing things really tough, and you’re not physically there to help them.
“Then you feel a sense of guilt that you’re not there with them. It’s a really tricky circumstance.
“This is the longest I’ve ever been away from my partner and away from home, and to know they’re in a severe lockdown and people are struggling, losing jobs, and all sorts of stress like that, and seeing the devastation on the news.
“There’s a lot of awareness of that across the season from our team in particular. We always thank them back in Victoria for their support and hope we’re providing some light in what could otherwise be a very dark time – a bit of a distraction for what everyone is going through.”
The Vixens will have a large ‘V’ on the side of their dress for the grand final as a way of acknowledging those Victorian netballers who haven’t been able to play this year due to setbacks caused by the pandemic, including the Vixens’ feeder team the Fury and all the girls at grassroots level.
They have also united their remote fanbase, as well as new supporters in Queensland under the social media campaign, ‘#DoItForVic’.
“We’re representing all those who haven’t been able to play the sport they love this year,” Thwaites said.
“I know my family have watched every game of the netball, not just my games. In a small aspect, we’ve been able to bring some entertainment and positivity to people who have followed us.”
For Thwaites to even be looking at playing on grand final day is still surreal.
She said she didn’t think she would be able to play the whole season due to difficult personal circumstances back home.
“For me this has been particularly hard,” she said, choking back tears.
“I didn’t think I would be able to get through the entire season. When we left we thought it was only going to be maybe seven weeks, then it turned into nine weeks, then it turned into 12 weeks and then 14 weeks really quickly.
“With some family circumstances for me I didn’t think I’d be able to stay up here as long as I have. I don’t want to go into it too much, but it’s been really difficult at times for me this season.”
Thwaites said it’s not all been bad in their Queensland base though.
The longest she’d been away with the Australian Diamonds was five weeks, but having spent nearly a third of the year away from home, all of the Vixens have been able to bond in a more meaningful way, spending more time together off the court while in the bubble.
They’ve also amassed some new fans in the Sunshine State, and Thwaites said come grand final day, they will need every bit of that support and a united team effort to come away victorious against the Fever.
“It’s going to be an absolute full team effort especially coming up against the Fever with Jhaniele Fowler out the back,” she said.
“In a grand final you’re running on adrenalin a bit, so with the intensity that’s in the first quarter, it’s usually the team that settles into a rhythm first and is able to play that game of chess that wins.
“Whoever will play those moments really well will be the team that comes out winning.
“We said from the start that this year’s champions will probably have an asterisk, because of the different circumstances and everything. But it’s not because it’s been easy, it’s been because it’s been the bloody hardest season that anybody has had to go through to win it.
“We want to be the team holding up the trophy at the end and prove we are the toughest and after everything we’ve been through, we’ve stuck together and still managed to get there.
“I don’t think the Victorian restrictions will allow for a big hero’s welcome [if we win] but I’m looking forward to be able to get home and give my loved ones a big hug – that would be more than enough for me to celebrate.”