Kelsey Browne has joined the Pies.Credit:AAP
When Magpies Netball coach Rob Wright considers the club's big-name lists from the past two seasons and the results that followed – or, well, did not – he admits, candidly, that we "badly underperformed".
No point arguing the irrefutable, but it does provide some context to the mostly grim narrative of Collingwood's first two Super Netball chapters, on the eve of what is tipped to be a more uplifting third instalment.
By choice and by chance, the team Wright takes into Saturday's opening round against the Sunshine Coast Lightning bears only a 50 per cent resemblance to the one the league's sole male head coach inherited after what co-captain Madi Browne describes as a "horrible" end to 2018.
"I felt like that actual list didn't quite work, and I'm not sure if it was ever going to work," says Wright, who controversially quit the NSW Swifts at the end of 2017, before joining the Magpies as an assistant last year and then being promoted to the head coaching role after Kristy Keppich-Birrell was not re-signed.
"We probably got helped by three people retiring straight away, because I felt like we needed to make change, and two people moved, so we ended up with five new players, and I think that was the first thing that we needed to do, to try and get a bit of a mix of what I felt was really important."
That, he describes as the "super-experience" of Geva Mentor and Nat Medhurst, the two oldest players in the competition, balanced by the two youngest in 20-year-olds Matilda Garrett and Shimona Nelson, with an eye to not just short-term success but beyond.
"I thought we needed to probably put a line in the sand," Wright says. "With me coming in fresh, it was just a great opportunity to go, 'Let's, literally, start again,' and that's what we've really done.
"Probably the unknown about that from my point of view is that when you change five people in a team, it takes time to work, and get moulded into what it wants to finally look like, so I'm realistic about that. I'm sure we'll be good; I'm not sure how good. Hopefully, though, we'll keep getting better, and if we can keep this group together for a while, I think they'll be all right."
A semi-final appearance meant the first year was reasonable, if still not meeting the lofty goals of this expected super-team. The next, though, ended miserably, in seventh place and with the exit of foundation coach Keppich-Birrell.
The most obvious deficiency has been at goal attack, and in snapping up triple world champion Nat Medhurst after her surprise late axing by the Fever, Wright sees not just a proven performer but a teacher for exciting young Jamaican shooter Shimona Nelson – preferred to Caitlin Thwaites, now at the Vixens – and understudy Sinclair.
"It was a bit of a jigsaw, because Shimona's only played for two years and we really see her as a long-term project, but we've already seen some massive gains," Wright says.
"But we thought, well, 'Bung' [Medhurst] is super-creative, has played with Jamaicans almost all of her life except when she played with Bass, so certainly plays into that style really nicely. She's a super, steely competitor, and just clever, and that's what I thought we needed, because obviously our other goalie's a first year in, as well, so pretty inexperienced."
Not so Mentor, the England and dual Lightning premiership captain. Where the 34-year-old goes, success seems to follow. Sharni Layton's shoes should be more than adequately filled.
"As I've said to Geva previously, I thought she was done and dusted when she left the Vixens [after 2016]," says Wright. "It looked like she was was on her last legs, then she went to Lightning and I think she's played some of the best netball of her life in the last couple of years.
Big signing: Geva Mentor.Credit:AAP
"She's just been phenomenal, and she's come here and continued to show why she's probably regarded among the top couple of players in the world."
Less obvious, to some, was the addition of another dual Lightning flag-winner, Diamonds wing attack Kelsey Browne, to join her sister Madi in a midcourt already boasting Kim Ravaillion and Ash Brazill. Was there really a need for another fast, diminutive brunette/Browne?
"I actually don't think they're that similar," says Wright. "They're both wing attacks, but I think they offered us something completely different, and again it was probably a strategy not for this year but because in the longer term I see Kelsey Browne being Madi Browne's successor, so we wanted to be able to start that process now.
"The beauty of it now is I believe that with our full midcourt, we actually have options in every position, and cover for every position. So it allows us to be really flexible."
There is some ego-managing to be done, considering all four wing centres would be in the starting seven elsewhere, Wright admits.
"To be honest, when we first started, I think the players were thinking, 'Oooh, how's this gonna go?' But over time I think we've sold where we're trying to head with it quite well and I think they're pretty on board."
The squeeze is likely to be avoided on Saturday due to a knee injury to Madi Browne (who has reverted to her maiden name from Robinson after a marital split). So if we know what has been rated as a "fail" in the past two seasons, what will constitute a pass mark for the Pies in 2019?
Finals as a minimum, according to Wright, whose overriding mantra is that the team simply must be better than it has been. The elder Browne is more openly ambitious.
"I think top two is a definite must," she says. "Especially with the way we've gone the past couple of years, and the calibre of the players that we've recruited, and because I know what we're capable of."
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