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NSL Files: Surrey Storm

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

That is how Surrey Storm felt after three Grand Final defeats in four years, but in 2015 something happened and in 2016 it happened again.

They won back-to-back Netball Super League titles, one of only three teams to have achieved that feat, with many wondering if we will ever see it again.

Beginning to blaze a trail

To understand how Surrey Storm secured back-to-back titles, you have to first look at the only team to have done it twice, Team Bath.

The five-time champions are the most successful team in the NSL and for three of their wins, Tamsin Greenway was a pivotal player.

But a trip Down Under to play for Queensland Firebirds forced a rethink.

“I’d spent all my life at Bath,” Greenway said. “Bath was a family unit, and we all grew up there.

“I spent some time out in Australia and when I came back, Storm approached me, and it just felt like a natural time to change.

“I think going to Australia had just opened my eyes to commercially how teams were doing it differently and then Storm just came all shiny and new.”

Greenway was sold on the vision and soon after her Team Bath teammate and Netball Super League icon Rachel Dunn was too.

They both joined the franchise ahead of the 2009 season marking the start of Surrey Storm’s journey, reaching a first-ever Grand Final two years later, losing to Hertfordshire Mavericks.

She added: “Even though we didn’t get across the line, there was a real shift of ‘hang on, we’re building something special, and people have left other places to come and try this.’

“You don’t just create performances, you have to believe in the bigger picture, and I think that’s what was different, Storm were doing things that hadn’t been done before.”

Another person who was helping to sculpt the vision was Gavin Baker, who has served as franchise director since 2014 as Storm set out to lead on and off the court.

He was part of the team that put together Netball London Live, where each year Surrey Storm played, and often sold out, the Copper Box Arena as netball was combined with entertainment.

Baker said: “At that time, we genuinely were trailblazers. We were paying players, we were going out and actively signing players.

“We were delivering community partnerships to a huge amount of people.

“We really thought a lot more about what we were doing and tried to take it to the masses, which other clubs hadn’t done at that high level.”

With their three Grand Final losses in four years, Surrey Storm inched closer to the title, losing by nine goals to Hertfordshire Mavericks in 2011 before suffering a two-goal defeat to Northern Thunder a year later.

Then, in 2014 they came a whisker away, losing to Manchester Thunder by a solitary goal.

“It was our centre pass, I was like right ‘I’m going to get this ball, I’m going to throw it down here, Rachel is going to score, they’ll run out of time’,” Greenway recalls.

“I remember coming up to the centre pass line and my centre was not even looking at me, she just tonked it straight off the sideline and they went down and scored.

“It was the first time where I felt like it was us against the world. I remember the other teams were supporting Thunder.

“I was like, ‘We’re building something special here because we’re a target, people don’t want us to win’ and I actually thrived on that.

“I remember just thinking ‘Right, I don’t want to ever feel like this again, so what are we going to do for next season?’”

One change saw Pamela Cookey return for a second spell at Storm, reuniting with her Team Bath ‘mates’, the famous blue of Team Bath’s famous blue and gold had become duck egg, the gold would come as shiny medals.

Greenway leads the way

While the influence of Team Bath was keenly felt, it was Greenway herself who had the biggest impact on Surrey Storm.

The wing attack took over as coach from Mary Beardwood in 2014, serving as player-coach for two seasons.

Baker said: “We had a really strong leader in Tamsin, she did it all to some extent. She wasn’t just a coach, she was across all of our activity really.

“I was just there to assist her, providing anything outside of playing that would make life better for the players to make sure we won games.”

Greenway takes a different, more honest view of how it worked.

“It was a massive blag when Mary Beardwood stepped down,” she admitted. “Obviously, this role came up and I thought I can do that.

“But I didn’t know whether I could and I didn’t have the qualifications to back it up. I remember sitting with Gav going, ‘Give me the role’. He was like are you sure? And I just went ‘Yes.’

“That netball programme was me. I was involved in everything from pathway to commercial to performance, it was my life, I gave it everything.

“Gav has done himself a bit of a disservice there though, nothing was ever too crazy for him. We did all kinds of stuff that other people hadn’t done before and they allowed us to do it.”

While Greenway learnt on the job, Cookey knew her role – as one of the most experienced members of the side, and with five Super League medals already, she was expected to win.

And she knew Surrey Storm could win too.

Storm lost twice in 2015, finishing just behind the undefeated Manchester Thunder to avoid them in the semi-finals.

And then the unthinkable happened, Thunder were knocked out by Hertfordshire Mavericks, as Storm defeated Yorkshire Jets comfortably.

Greenway said: “Teams always have teams where they don’t particularly match up well against them, and Thunder was ours that year.

“We’d already had history with them the year before and I remember us winning our semi-final in the first game and watching the second semi on the big screen.

“Thunder should have wiped the floor with Mavericks, and they didn’t. I think there was kind of this ‘oh, we’re going to win the title this year’ feeling.

“There was just a different air of confidence around the group that year. It’s like we’ve been here and we’ve done everything but got the t-shirt, so let’s go out and get it.”

And get it, they did – Surrey Storm dominated Mavericks in the final, holding a three-goal lead after the first quarter and never relinquishing it, winning 56-39 to claim their first title.

“I remember dropping down to my knees at the end and just being like, ‘Oh my god, we did it’,” Greenway added.

“I was so relieved. Because even though you kind of know, you just want it really badly, so the relief of getting it was just huge.”

Going again

The players barely waited for the celebrations to die down before thinking about winning again, but then their other requirements took over.

Cookey retired from international netball after the 2015 World Cup taking a break from the game meaning she came into the 2016 season undercooked.

She said: “I had taken some time out after the World Cup. And T [Greenway] was like, ‘Sure, take as much time as you need and come back when you’re ready’.

“I missed the first month or two of pre-season, and then when we came to the Season Opener, I was not conditioned whatsoever.

“We got to half-time and I turned to Hannah Reid [now Knights] and said ‘Hannah, I am not going to make it’.

“We were up against Team Bath and we were smashing them at half-time.

“T was like, ‘Are you guys sure you’ve got it?’, I was like ‘I don’t think so’, and then we went on to lose the game.”

There had also been a change for Greenway, who had retired from playing and now operated as director of netball, taking an overarching view of the netball programme, literally.

For the first half of the 2016 season, Greenway watched Storm’s games from up in the stands, with new head coach Kat Ratnapala occupying her position on the bench, another way her side were doing things differently.

Storm were also going in as defending champions, and while Baker admits they had always had a swagger about them, the 2016 season saw that turned up another notch.

After their opening round defeat to Bath, Storm lost only three more times, to Loughborough Lightning, Mavericks, and Thunder, defeating each of them in the reverse fixtures.

But the result they learnt most from was their semi-final.

Defending the dream

“We played Mavericks and they were stacked, that’s when they had Sammy Wallace, they were so good,” Greenway said.

“It was going goal for goal and I still remember the last quarter they get a penalty and I’m yelling everyone to step up, get aggressive.

“Han comes out with this massive intercept and we go down the other end and score in literally the dying seconds.

“It’s still my favourite moment of netball because the whole place erupts. We should never have won that game really on paper and just that noise, I’ll never get out of my head that last nine seconds.

“We were the underdogs but the players had been in that position so many times, it just became second nature to perform in the big moment.”

There was no hangover from their dramatic semi-final win, instead, Surrey Storm were spurred on and up against Manchester Thunder they knew they had to come out all guns blazing.

And that is just what they did, Storm blew Thunder away in the first half holding a 13-goal lead at the break.

But, as the team filed into the changing room, Greenway asked the same question she had asked her side at the start of the season, ‘Are you sure you have got this?’

The answer was an emphatic yes, but their performance in the second half did not quite match their confidence.

Thunder came roaring back, cutting Storm’s lead to seven goals with one quarter to go, and then Cookey had to leave the court.

She explained: “I got cramp in that last quarter, I had to come off and down loads of sweets, but then I was like ‘Tamsin you need to put me back on, I need to go on’.

“Who knows what could have happened if the game was a couple of minutes longer? Hindsight is always a good thing.

“Experience played a really big part, we knew how to close out that game and be able to push through. My mindset just switched when I was in a final, I just knew that I need to win the game.”

With 30 seconds to go, Kat Ainsworth, the centre who had ‘tonked the ball out’ to hand Thunder the title in 2014, found herself with the ball again.

And with Greenway screaming ‘Attack the game!’, Ainsworth got the ball down the court finding Dunn, who sunk the shot to give Storm back-to-back titles.

The journey was complete, Surrey Storm had come full circle.

Is it still possible?

The Surrey Storm era ended with that win in 2016, as Cookey retired and a whole host of players followed Greenway to new club Wasps.

The Midlands side became the most recent team to win back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018.

In doing so, they continued the Team Bath and Surrey Storm model of a belief in a new, exciting vision, backed by world-class talent, which Greenway believes is still capable of producing the same returns today.

She said: “It’s possible at any club, if you build the right culture, and you have the right values about what you’re trying to do, you don’t even question what the season is going to look like.

“And that’s the difference for me. There’s only one winner every single year, so if all you’re ever playing for is to get that cherry on top, there is no point, you’re in for a lifetime of disappointment.

“But if you build something special, if you buy into the big picture, you don’t look for quick fixes, but look for long-term legacies, culture around what you’re trying to do, structures around how you want to play.

“Then there’s absolutely no reason why any club can’t go and do that.”

The Netball Super League Grand Final is being shown live on Sky Sports Arena and YouTube from 1.45pm on Sunday 11 June.

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