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Lightning win the Vitality Netball Superleague.

Loughborough Lightning won their first-ever Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) title at the Copper Box Arena on Sunday evening after victory over Team Bath Netball.

This was Lightning’s fourth final in their 16 years in the Superleague and managed the lift the trophy for the first time thanks to a hard-fought, 49-32 win over their old rivals.

Lightning had beaten newcomers Leeds Rhinos Netball in the semi-finals a day prior while Team Bath arrived having narrowly overcome Manchester Thunder in an all-time great final four encounter.

Earlier in the day, Thunder beat Rhinos in the third War of the Roses of the 2021 season by nine goals in front of a capacity crowd in London.

The Grand Final signalled the end of the most unique VNSL campaign to date and one that will live long in the memory of every supporter of netball.

Loughborough Lightning 49-32 Team Bath Netball:

Loughborough Lightning were crowned Vitality Netball Superleague champions for the first time in their history after a masterful display against Team Bath Netball. 

The evening began inauspiciously as Nat Panagarry tossed the ball out of play from the first centre pass, but Bath twice squandered the chance to gain an early advantage with Lightning eventually opening the scoring through Mary Cholhok. Both defences proved difficult to breach as Sam May produced a great intercept in her final match before retirement.

Jasmin Odeogberin also popped up with a crucial turnover to give Lightning the opportunity to move back in front. Their lead stood at four at the end of the first quarter with Cholhok netting a lay-up on the buzzer. Sara Francis-Bayman’s side could’ve nudged further ahead at the start of the second, yet a few mistakes saw Bath begin to eat away at the scoreline.

The battle between Cholhok and England legend Eboni Usoro-Brown intensified, with the shooter leaping to collect Ella Clark’s feed to restore Lightning’s four-goal lead which grew to five shortly after. A costly miss by Sophie Drakeford-Lewis allowed Lightning to move seven goals ahead, before halftime arrived with the score at 22-14.

Five-time champions Bath had to respond if they were going to win their first title since 2013 and a misplaced pass by Vitality Player of the Season Beth Cobden gave them the chance to strike. They whittled the score down to a five-goal margin but Lightning continued to frustrate them.

A vital intercept from Cobden titled the game back in their favour as two quick goals put them eight up before Kim Borger responded in the last second for Bath. It was Lightning’s final to lose and they showed no signs of doing so as they scored three without reply to begin the closing quarter. When Panagarry intercepted near the centre circle, the result looked to be heading only one way. Lightning were flying as they romped home to a 49-32 victory. 

Lightning Head Coach, Sara Francis-Bayman, said: “I think you could just see the outpouring of emotion and I think there are so many stories in this team: Sam May retiring, Beth Cobden coming back from a horrific injury which she suffered in a final, those guys who’ve been here for two, three final losses with Lightning, the guys who it’s their first season, I think everyone there pretty much has got a story.”

Lightning captain, Nat Panagarry, said: “We’re just so happy, I feel so overwhelmed to be honest with so much emotion. We’ve been in a few finals and not got over that finishing line, just really proud of the performance we put on today.”

Leeds Rhinos 34-43 Manchester Thunder:

Manchester Thunder recovered from the disappointment of Saturday’s semi-final to emerge victorious over Leeds Rhinos in a fiercely contested third-place play-off. It was goal-for-goal in the early stages before an offensive contact call by Joyce Mvula gave Rhinos the opportunity to edge two in front, with the reliable Rhea Dixon sinking her shot from distance.

Tuaine Keenan continued to disturb Mvula as she forced a couple of turnovers that Rhinos couldn’t convert into goals. Sienna Rushton’s first miss of the afternoon gave Thunder the chance to turn the score around quickly in the second quarter. Rhinos’ lead evaporated similarly in the semi-final where Loughborough Lightning took control and Thunder’s defensive pressure almost allowed them to do the same here.

Fi Toner was then introduced at wing-defence and she made an immediate impact with a terrific intercept as Rhinos reduced the deficit to three, which was extended to five by half-time. A disjointed start to the third quarter saw Rhinos seize the initiative and get back to within one goal midway through before levelling the score shortly after.

Rushton was unfortunate as she missed a shot on the buzzer as Thunder held a slender two-goal advantage at the break. Attacking the final 12 minutes of their season with a determined attitude, Thunder quashed the chances of a fairy-tale ending for Rhinos as they forced several turnovers to go seven goals up within a few minutes. And it finished nine goals in favour of the 2019 champions, winning their third ‘War of the Roses’ clash of the campaign.

Thunder Head Coach, Karen Greig, said: “I think yesterday didn’t define our season and it was all about finishing strong today and showing that grit and determination that we’ve shown all season and making sure that we finished off with a result and a performance that we were proud of.”

Thunder captain, Emma Dovey, said: “I know obviously we didn’t get into the final but third place is better than fourth so that was the only motivation we needed.”

Rhinos Head Coach, Dan Ryan, said: “I think it comes down to a little bit of experience to be honest in how to secure in those (big) moments. I think we always responded well as the game went on.”

Rhinos co-captain, Jade Clarke, said: “It’s the first time I’ve been at a brand. new franchise, with so many young players which I’ve absolutely loved, they keep me young as well. They’re just so hungry to learn and committed and passionate and it’s been brilliant to work with Dan (Ryan) again.”

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