The Guardian’s guide to playing netball – part seven: goal defence

Erin Delahunty
Jo Weston, 23, is one of the most promising goal defenders in the game. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Goal defenders are netball’s great chameleons, required to be fast-moving, canny and adaptable to change. They may have to fly for every contest with an aerial specialist or execute a quiet, grinding game in the shadow of more a dazzling defensive partner, who picks off loose balls generated by their tireless work.

Whatever variety and versatility a contest demands, goal defenders must deliver. To do that, they need an aerobic engine to match a centre, a high tactical IQ, fantastic footwork and second-to-none (with the possible exception of the goal keeper) communication skills.

Recently-retired Diamonds captain and three-time ANZ Championship title-winner Clare McMeniman says GDs have “got to love hard work, be dogged and determined” and have “just a little bit of pizazz”.

While their role is to shut down the goal attack – often a team’s No1 play-maker and most accurate long-range shot – goal defenders must also instantaneously morph into the attackers they hunt, as they form a vital link from defence into attack, post-turnover.

Queenslander McMeniman – who quit netball in 2011 before making a triumphant return in 2014, playing for Australia for the first time aged 29 and going on to play 15 Tests, most at GD and as captain – says many miscalculate the work rate and influence of a goal defence.

“I think people underestimate just how much work a goal attack, then by extension, a goal defence does,” she says. “Even though you’re not running that extra third that the centres do, you can often go just as far in a game. You need a good set of legs to run out a whole game. And it’s all at a high intensity, with many repeat efforts. We’re the workhorses.”

The role

Superficially-speaking, goal defenders – allowed in the centre third and their side’s defensive third, including the goal circle – simply have to stifle the goal attack, one of two players per side allowed to shoot. But in reality, it’s infinitely more than chasing one player around and teaming up with the goal keeper in the circle to pressure shots.

Unlike other positions, where players can on occasion switch on and off, the unyielding one-on-one defence required begins with the first whistle and barely relents.

When they’re not marking their direct opponent, defending the shot, rebounding or creating and taking intercepts, they’re driving the ball into attack after it has been turned it over.

Like wing defenders, GDs also have to back up their attack line on the transverse line. Then get back to their own line for the next centre pass, whether to be a back-up attacking option for their centre or prevent their opposite number from getting a centre pass receive or laying the groundwork for a set play. Then there’s circle work, requiring defence on the shot, rebounding and a close alliance with the keeper.

Key attributes

One of the game’s most promising goal defenders, 23-year-old Jo Weston, who is starring for the Melbourne Vixens in the Super Netball league, says the position is one of the most-hardworking, physically, on the court.

Weston, who became a Diamond in late 2015 but has played just three Tests, says the stop-start nature of traditional Australian-style one-on-one defence, coupled with the increasing number of repeat efforts required, means aerobic fitness is key. So too strength.

“The game is evolving and changing,” she says. “It’s getting physically tougher and tougher and more and more athletic. You need fitness and determination to work those repeated efforts, but also power and strength.

“You need good elevation, as goalers seem to be getting taller all the time, but also speed to chase down the ball. Timing is also so important. I think that’s partially instinct, but also something you can develop.”

McMeniman, who loves watching Weston play because “she’s still so raw and has such beautiful hands over the shot and an amazing lean”, agrees fitness is key.

“Fitness-wise, you need to be able to match every repeat effort, at equal intensity, that your player makes, all game. You also have to be strong, especially through the core and upper body and work on your vertical jump. Footwork is another big one, of course. It’s the foundation we defenders build everything else on.”

Be the change

While they’re often perceived as “quiet worker bees”, McMeniman says a good goal defence can identify when something needs to change tactically on the court – and lead the way.

“Being tactically strong is important,” she says. “You need to be able to see when a defensive structure isn’t working or if the rate you’re bringing the ball through the midcourt into attack is working or not and then change as required.”

While goal keepers like Collingwood star Sharni Layton have reputations for being loud, providing direction and encouragement from the back, GDs are also an important mouth piece, communicating messages “through the court”, McMeniman says.

“What the GD says might not be heard by the crowd, but it’s certainly part of the role to talk a lot and provide direction and hopefully it’s meaningful. We’re normally absolutely exhausted from working so hard … we’re too puffed to be shouting!” 

Weston agrees. “I’m definitely no Sharni when it comes to being vocal on the court, but talking is really important.”

Partners in crime

The chemistry between circle defenders can be game-defining, Weston says. “The communication you have with your keeper is first and foremost when you’re playing together. You need to understand how they like to play, what they prefer, even what words to use.”

Weston, who is building a formidable partnership with 22-year-old Emily Mannix at the Vixens this Super Netball season, says time off the court is just as important as time on it. “You need trust and honesty in netball and I think getting to know someone off the court can really translate to on the court.”

For more than decade, McMeniman played with the very best in the business – ex-Firebirds and Diamonds captain Laura Geitz is also a close friend.

“We just clicked right from the start, but we also worked really hard on building our combination. You have to understand the other person, who is going to go where, when. For me, achieving success from that tight partnership was so rewarding. You don’t get an intercept, the combination does.”

Assess and adjust

McMeniman and Weston share a philosophy about defence on the shot – to assess and adjust.

McMeniman says it’s a “game-by-game, play-by-play” proposition. “One week, a shooter might miss under a certain defensive style, then the next week nail goals regardless, so you have to be constantly thinking and be flexible enough to have a multitude of options you can go to. It’s like anything else happening on the court, you need to identity it and implement change.”

Weston advises defenders to “constantly reassess what’s working”. “If something’s working, stick with it. If not, change it up.”

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