By Tom Harle
The Vitality Netball Superleague play-offs are the opening act of a seismic summer that promises to be a third booster shot for the sport.
Ground zero was England’s incredible Commonwealth triumph in 2018, when 1.8 million watched the Roses win and 130,000 women were inspired to start playing the game.
Then came the hosting of the 2019 World Cup, which brought 160,000 onto courts, as England won bronze on home soil.
Sunday’s Superleague Grand Final at the Copper Box is the launchpad for a Commonwealth summer, with Jess Thirlby’s side defending their title in Birmingham.
Four teams. One shot at immortality. 👊
It's officially the week of the 2022 Grand Final 🥳
Who are you backing for glory? 🏆 pic.twitter.com/wOQ5Mdgcr7
— Vitality Netball Superleague (@NetballSL) May 30, 2022
Manchester Thunder’s 57-cap Rose Natalie Metcalf, née Haythornthwaite, has seen the game change.
“When I started playing Superleague we were in a sports hall and we had three rows of fans and my mum was one of them,” she said.
“Now we’re filling out arenas and it’s amazing to see everyone coming back and celebrating netball.”
Places in Thirlby’s water-tight 12-strong squad for Birmingham remain up for grabs with the England supremo promising to pick on form.
Players will be informed whether or not they have made the cut immediately after the Grand Final, raising the stakes still further.
Thunder, with Tracey Neville as performance director, aren’t far off a racing certainty to regain the Superleague trophy.
The north-west side won 20 out of 20 games in the regular season, breaking all scoring records on the way, the first side to go unbeaten since 2015.
They beat reigning champions Loughborough Lightning, who ended in second place, 71-63 in their final game of the regular season on Monday.
Formidable coach Karen Greig isn’t concerned about her side being undercooked.
"People say that it's good to lose because you learn from losing and you definitely do,” she said.
“I think you build resilience in being challenged by close games and pulling those results out of the bag. The fight we’ve shown has been fantastic.”
Five-time winners Team Bath overcame injuries, Covid-19 outbreaks and the retirement of kingpin Serena Guthrie to reach the play-offs in fourth place.
— Vitality Netball Superleague (@NetballSL) June 3, 2022
The wildcard in a predictable picture are London Pulse.
One of the league’s newest franchises with an average starting age of 22, Sam Bird’s side have broken into the top four for the first time this season.
Sensation continues to surround 19-year-old defender Funmi Fadoju, known for her explosive interceptions and poised to star in Birmingham.
“We’ve made history already but this is the business end of the season and we want to shine,” said Bird.
“If we get our timing right, we might just cause a couple of surprises.”
Who will be crowned champions? Vitality Netball Grand Final 2022 takes place at London’s Copper Box Arena this Sunday 5 June. Get your tickets here