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Towera Vikhumbo, Sirens, (Image: Ben Lumley)

Towera Vinkhumbo has been a huge part of the Sirens defence this season (Image: Ben Lumley)

Towera Vikhumbo, Sirens, (Image: Ben Lumley)

Surrey Storm on the move, Towera Vinkhumbo and a monumental weekend at the top of the table headline our talking points from Round 9 of the Vitality Netball Superleague.

As the race for the top four continues to hot up and the top two continued their relentless march towards their first head-to-head there was no shortage of debating points from a weekend that also featured it’s fair share of illness and injury.

Keeping it down to just five talking points was tough, but like our VNSL stars we rise to the challenge – so here’s what we learned from the latest round of action.

Another huge VNSL weekend looms

What better way to mark the halfway point in the season with a trio of huge games.

Round 10 of 20 will be upon us on Friday and the top six all face each in three blockbuster matches as the race for the top four threatens to be one of the most open in years.

Here at Superleague Towers we’ve ordered in extra popcorn.

As well as the top two clashing on Monday night in a mouthwatering contest that will see the past two champions put their 100% records on the line when Loughborough Lightning host Manchester Thunder.

A win for Lightning and they will draw level on points with Thunder – a win by three goals or more and they’ll go top of the table. A handful of tickets remain available here.

The two other games at the top of the table are both being streamed on the Sky Sports YouTube channel.

Behind them third-placed London Pulse will look to return to winning ways after a narrow defeat to Thunder in Round 9. They travel to face fifth-placed Leeds Rhinos in Sheffield with Rhinos knowing a win would see them level with Sam Bird’s team.

Getting the action underway on Friday night sixth-placed Team Bath take on a Saracens Mavericks team who have lost four of their last five but are still clinging on to fourth place.

Towera stands tall…again

Strathclyde Sirens made it back-to-back home wins as they beat Celtic Dragons on Friday night, and once again goal keeper Towera Vinkhumbo was a stand out performer.

Captain Gia Abernathy dazzled on her birthday while Niamh McCall continues to be a threat from anywhere in the circle but Vinkhumbo’s starring role remains a huge part of the team.

The Malawi international was a sensation for the Scottish franchise in 2021 and she has carried on where she left off last season – she’s already halfway to the tallies of her first year in a Sirens dress.

With 29 interceptions she leads the way in the Superleague standings and with 51 turnovers she trails just London Pulse’s Funmi Fudoju (56).

Sirens had hoped to be in the mix for the top four after a brilliant campaign last season that saw them record a best ever sixth placed finish.

With half of the season remaining, Lesley McDonald’s squad are only six points off the top four despite sitting ninth such is the congested nature of the table.

If they can find the consistency that has eluded them over the first few weeks, don’t rule out a push up the table and another attempt at gatecrashing the top four.

Injuries and illness take their toll

Friday and Saturday brought a flood of news regarding squads as injuries and illness continued to bite hard, with some teams a little more unfortunate than offers.

For the second time this season Team Bath were left with a reduced number of players as Imogen Allison, Layla Guscoth, Kirsty Harris and Tash Pavelin all missed the clash with Wasps.

In fact four of the seven starters from the narrow defeat to Loughborough missed out as Bath lost to Wasps but not for the first time this season a franchise has seen their training partners and associates step up.

“It was unsettling but it has been a season of challenges and I was pleased with how the girls stepped up, right across the squad.” Anna Stembridge.

Molly Hole, Lily-May Catling received first stars, Anya Le Monnier made her VNSL debut and Annie O’Rourke gained valuable match day experience.

It wasn’t just Bath that suffered. Saracens Mavericks were without Beth Ecuyer-Dale and Georgia Lees while Ine-Mari Venter has suffered an injury that will keep her out for a couple of weeks.

Leeds Rhinos also confirmed Emily Hollingworth would miss the rest of the season, while Rhea Dixon is also out of action.

It’s not pleasing news to report, but the availability of the information, the confirmation from the franchises ensured fans knew exactly what was happening.

And the outline on VNSL channels earlier in the season ensures everyone knows what the protocols are as coronavirus continues to have an unwanted impact on day-to-day living.

On-song Storm can make their move

Surrey Storm made it back-to-back wins for the first time this season by beating Wasps in front of the Sky Sports cameras on Monday night.

A hugely impressive 67-59 win saw them take home the Tom Reseigh Trophy, and the nature of their dominant success was just as impressive.

The 2015 and 2016 VNSL champions have been out of the race for the top four since 2016 but they are well placed to kick on in the coming weeks and underline their status as contenders for a return the end of season semi-finals.

Up next it’s a Celtic Dragons side who seem to have lost their way a little after three successive defeats and then it’s a Severn Stars side that have lost their last eight games.

Another pair of wins for Mikki Austin’s team would stretch their winning run to four, and put them on 18 points.

With the six teams above them all playing each other in Round 10, Storm could find themselves very well placed in a couple of weeks time. But wins will be important, after the next two weeks it’s Bath, Lightning and Thunder in quick succession.

Too close to call

We started the column by calling out the competitive nature at the top of the table and we are nothing if not thorough here at Superleague Towers.

Six of the last 16 matches over the last three rounds of action have been decided by four goals or fewer.

A talented London Pulse squad came up just short against league leaders Thunder in a thriller, losing out by three while Rhinos and Saracens defied their injury and illness concerns to put on on epic which Rhinos shaded 53-51.

Storm-Mavericks, Lightning-Wasps, Mavericks-Sirens and Stars-Rhinos also fall into that bracket and if you go further back and it’s nine of the last 22 where four goals has been the difference.

And we are not even counting game of the season contenders Thunder-Mavericks and Bath-Sirens earlier in the campaign.

It’s not long ago a round of one-sided wins were commonplace but as the Superleague gets increasingly competitive, young players step up to the challenge and squads get stronger every round brings a host on enthralling contests.

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