Stellenbosch University coach Zanele Mdodana reckons that this year’s Varsity Netball competition will be an open race. The defending champions will not go into the competition as a closed book after finally being able to win the competition last year, having fallen at the last hurdle a few times before.
All the top eight university netball teams in the country will take centre stage from 20 August to 18 September to compete for the title.
Mdodana says they will not get ahead of themselves as the competition can go either way.
“It’s a new season, new young faces that are a part of our team this year. We have got a good blend of experience and first years but we are looking for positives. We obviously want to go and defend our title. That is the objective but we know it’s about the journey. We are not being outcome-based at the moment, we are just focusing on the process which is taking it game by game. We also know that it is an extremely wide-open competition, you can’t call it from the word go as to who is going to walk away with the trophy.
"Everybody is gunning for the title, we obviously want to go do a back-to-back like we did with USSA. But it is about the process at the end of the day and making sure that come the business end we have got 12 available players,” says Mdodana.
THE TEAM TO BEAT
Maties will probably be targeted by all the teams in the competition, especially after clinching the University Sports South Africa’s (USSA) netball championship again. The Maroon Machine won the USSA netball competition title for the first time in 27 years at last year’s edition before they went on to win the 2022 Varsity Netball edition.
The Western Cape side repeated their USSA feat and won this year’s edition. They rounded off a dominant performance against the University of Pretoria, retaining their USSA netball championship title for a second year running. The Mdodana-led side is now gunning for the 2023 edition of the Varsity Netball tournament. The former Spar Proteas captain realises that remaining at the top won’t be an easy task.
“It’s going to be harder than what it was with the USSA simply because we have all seen each other. We are in a position where we lost a key shooter (Sian Moore) of ours, she is not playing Varsity Netball. Other teams are gaining players, massive players they didn’t have at USSA. The teams are more or less going to look the same but not necessarily. The format of the competition is different (to USSA) because with USSA you have your 12 (players) for the week and with Varsity Netball you have a squad of 16 which you can rotate every weekend.
"Also, the duration of the competition is longer so you need to be strategic on what aces do you show and, when not to. Make sure you give all your 16 players the experience to play so that, come the business end, you know the 12 that can cope with the pressure that comes with the semifinal and the final.
"It’s going to be more challenging than USSA because there is so much at play with the crowd, the lights, the cameras, and the music. The different format of power play, and the strategic stoppage that has been brought into play. Everybody gunning to dethrone Maties, we need to forget about what happened at USSA, we are starting from scratch,” she explains.
Stellies will be without the likes of Nichole Taljaard and Nicola Smith, who represented South Africa with the Proteas at the Netball World Cup in Cape Town, as they are no longer eligible to play in this competition. Mdodana believes they have been able to strengthen the team well enough to be able to compete in the tournament.
“Fortunately we believe in the system of handing over the bib. The senior players know that they are going to leave, there is an understudy, there is somebody that is there in the squad that they are learning from. Nicky and Nicola have done that, they have handed over their bibs to players that were there but also we know that we have done some proper recruitment from looking at schools last year, making sure that we get some well-oiled youngsters into our team. Yes, they don’t have the experience of Varsity Netball competition, but at school (level) they were quite high performers. It’s just a matter of having the seniors now rallying around those first years, it makes a massive difference,” Mdodana added.