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Vitality Netball Superleague: Leeds Rhinos Netball ready to attack their finals opportunity

Leeds Rhinos Netball take on Loughborough Lightning in the first Superleague semi-final on Saturday afternoon and Rhinos have not played a competitive match since May 31; the contest is live on Sky Sports Action and Mix from 1.30pm and streamed on the Sky Sports YouTube channel

By Emma Thurston’

“We’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time, but one thing that we have achieved in abundance is our ability to demonstrate resilience. I think that we’ve handled our challenges, adversities and setbacks incredibly well and we’ve always responded extremely well.”

Dan Ryan’s praise for his Leeds team is not without foundation, the resilience he highlights has been the bedrock of their inaugural season in the Vitality Netball Superleague.

After losing three starting players to injury on the opening weekend, Rhinos had the fortitude to dust themselves off and continue to win matches. As the rounds went by they established themselves, and, then having welcomed back their starters, a top-four finish came into view before Covid-19 struck.

The positive case within their squad, and the timings surrounding it, left a great deal of uncertainty about their future in the competition. Potentially, they had played their last match of the 2021 season without knowing it.

However, a meeting of the Vitality Netball Superleague rescheduling competition committee highlighted a pre-determined rule, a rule that points would be allocated based on previous encounters if matches were disrupted due to Covid-19.

The presence and implementation of this regulation meant Leeds Rhinos Netball’s season would continue, and it would continue on finals weekend.

“I can’t remember the last time, in any sport, where a team is preparing for a semi-final having not played a game in a month,” Ryan said to Sky Sports at the start of finals week.

“All things considered we’re doing well though. It’s been a chaotic period of time, quite challenging and unsettling in parts but to have light at the end of the tunnel and be preparing for a semi-final in our first year, is something that we’re incredibly grateful for.”

We’re keen and determined to present and represent ourselves as well as we can, considering the challenges and obstacles that we’ve had to work our way through over this last period of time.

Dan Ryan

Due to Rhinos playing and training together indoors, the entire squad were ‘close contacts’ of the individual who tested positive and that meant 10 days of isolation for all.

As a result, they will arrive for their semi-final against Loughborough Lightning having had just three team training sessions in the past three weeks and with their last competitive match having been played on May 31.

“It’s far from an ideal preparation but we need to make the most of what time we have, what we can do and get to work on what we can control,” Ryan said, in a determined tone.

“There won’t be any time for excuses, and we’ll be giving this our best shot. We’ve been under pressure this entire season and endured it really well, so we’re certainly up for the challenge of finals.”

It is a task they will face without their exceptional shooter Donnell Wallam, who has flown back to Australia. Wallam, who has been a force since her return from a broken radius, had to go through the awful pain of losing her grandmother while the whole squad were isolating.

“Our priority was to get Donnell back to be with her family as quickly as possible, and we’re really pleased that she’s now on her way home. We’ll certainly be playing for Donnell this weekend, and we know that she’ll be cheering us on and hoping that we go as well as we possibly can,” said Ryan.

With such a limited preparation time, Ryan has said their focus during training will be on their own game and connecting with how they are going to approach Lightning.

The “team mechanics” change slightly without Wallam, but earlier this season the new England Futures athlete – Sienna Rushton – highlighted her ability and maturity while starting in Wallam’s place.

“It will be really important that we connect back in quickly. Also, that the players understand that the pressure and the intensity of finals weekend is going to be greater than they’ve experienced so far this season,” added Ryan.

“So, we’re trying to simulate that for the group, having not played in a competitive match in a month and not been able to train together a lot over the past couple of weeks.

“It is a challenge because as much as we need to prepare them for the intensity of the weekend, we also need to safely reload them in terms of their return to play following isolating at home for 10 days.”

Among Ryan’s squad are individuals who have relished playing Superleague netball week in, and week out. Alongside the experienced Jade Clarke and Fi Toner, athletes like Vicki Oyesola, Rhea Dixon and Brie Grierson, have come into their own within the Rhinos environment.

“I’ve loved working with all of these young emerging players, who have always had the potential and talent, but hadn’t necessarily found the right environment for them to truly thrive before,” Ryan said.

“We’ve got a number of athletes in our environment that have been on the outer [edges] at other franchises or even discarded too soon, for whatever reasons. We always wanted Rhinos to be a place where players can show what they can do, be fully embraced for who they are, and to create an environment that supports, nurtures and fosters their development in a holistic way.

“What’s so pleasing for me is that the netball public, England Netball and the selectors, have seen some of these players really shine this season. I think that one of our greatest successes in our inaugural season has been the emergence and re-emergence of some of these great young English talents.”

Anyone who has seen Rhinos play or spoken to the athletes within Ryan’s environment, would not know this is their first full season together as a group. From the opening weekend, they looked established and like a team that were going to threaten the order this season.

“Building a team from scratch takes a lot of hard work, time and effort and you need to be patient, but when you have the platform to be able to build day-by-day, it makes the process a lot easier,” Ryan said.

“The amount of access that I’ve had to the players since October, due to our programme being a full-time one, it’s been the key factor in enabling us to consistently consolidate and establish ourselves as well as and progressively move the team forward.

“If we were training twice a week, then we wouldn’t be where we are right now. Instead, the fact that we are training every day, we’re fully connected and seeing each other all of the time as well, that has fast-tracked our development as a team. I think that’s a really important message as to how the standards can be raised here in the UK.”

For now, Ryan’s focus is not on the wider game in the UK though. It is on finals weekend, his Rhinos outfit and the three other teams that will be present at the Copper Box Arena in London this weekend.

“If you look at Loughborough Lightning and Manchester Thunder, they’re probably the two teams that are in form at the moment and hitting their straps at the business end of the season,” he said.

“We know the enormous challenges that Loughborough pose, but we also know that we have nothing to lose in this final series and that’s how we will attack it.

“If you look at the three other teams in the top four, they are ones with the weight of expectation on them and that if they don’t win the title, they will most likely see this season as a missed opportunity or failure in some ways.

“Whereas for us, we’ve had to fight all season just to stay in touch and keep our finals dream alive. Now that we are here, there’s no pressure on us. We just want to attack this opportunity and get everything we can from our season.

“So we need to play freely, be bold and be brave, and if that means we’re good enough to compete and reach the quality we know we can, then who knows what can happen?!”

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