When Dan Ryan was appointed West Coast Fever head coach last September, he said his goals were mainly to value-add and enhance what already made the team so great.
Under the watch of his predecessor, Stacey Marinkovich, the Fever had established themselves as one of the toughest sides in the Super Netball league, leading Ryan to believe all he needed to do was make a few small tweaks to unlock their full potential.
See, in the 25 years the club has existed, they’ve never been able to lift a national netball league trophy and although they’ve come close in the Super Netball era, reaching the finals in three of the past four seasons, they’ve fallen agonisingly short each time.
In 2018, despite having home-court advantage at Perth Arena with a 13,722-strong record Super Netball crowd, the Fever lost their first-ever grand final appearance to the Sunshine Coast Lightning (62-59).
In 2020, the side stood tall throughout the Queensland hub to reach the decider once again but fell short against the Vixens (66-64) after the scores were level with a minute and a half left in the game.
Even last year, when the Fever copped a 12-point sanction for breaching the salary cap, the team managed to win more games than anyone else to defy the odds and secure a semi-finals spot. But the toll of this task caught up with them during the preliminary final and they bowed out against the Giants (64-61).
To Ryan, these small margins between heartbreak and glory made it clear that the team were on the verge of something great.
Although the entire roster was off contract at the end of the 2021 season, he re-signed nine of their 10 players with haste, including the world’s best shooter, Jhaniele Fowler, and Australia’s best goal keeper, Courtney Bruce.
In his mission to value-add, he enticed up-and-coming defender Rudi Ellis to Western Australia to provide impact off the bench and also picked up one of the signings of the season when he recruited former international midcourter Chelsea Pitman as a training partner – a year after she’d been discarded by the Adelaide Thunderbirds and thought her career might be done.
That last move, in particular, paid off in spades, with Pitman playing five Super Netball games this year as a replacement under COVID or injury protocols, fitting in seamlessly and adding a wealth of experience to the driving engine of the court.
But apart from these additions, in many ways, the team very much look like and feel like the same Fever they’ve always been.
So why are pundits tipping them as the favourites to win this year?
If there’s anyone that understands how important it is to learn from your failures, it’s Dan Ryan.
Although his recent coaching stints in the northern hemisphere were rather successful – guiding the Leeds Rhinos to the UK Superleague finals in their inaugural year and leading Northern Ireland to a top-10 finish at the 2019 Netball World Cup – his first gig as a head coach in Australia certainly didn’t go to plan.
Ryan last coached a Super Netball club between 2017 and 2018, at the Adelaide Thunderbirds, where the side claimed back-to-back wooden spoons and lost 27 matches in a row.
Although he’s taken the opportunity to re-write this part of his story, enjoying a very different year with the Fever — finishing second on the ladder and winning the major semi-final against the Vixens a fortnight ago (71-62).
He still has as much to prove as the Fever do in the world’s best league and has been encouraging them to embrace these hardships as a catalyst for growth.
“We’ve spoken a lot about how we feel and what our vulnerabilities are and being able to share those things means we’re carrying the weight together.”
One of the things fans have loved most about watching Ryan this year has been his inspiring pep talks, that are enough to make any average Joe want to jump off the couch and spring into action.
In these exchanges, the group will be locked in a huddle and hanging on every word he says as Ryan simplifies the task, reassures them of their capabilities and asks them to take hold of their destiny.
This unwavering passion has influenced the biggest change in the team, building a mentality filled with trust and self-belief.
“When I came into the job, the first couple of discussions I had with players was really about selling them a philosophy that this is our team and everyone has to make a contribution,” Ryan said.
“We’ve certainly done a deep dive into our relationships and built a stronger bond and understanding amongst the group, so when the going gets tough we know we’re going to go to the ends of the earth for each other.
“That connection has been a really important element that I’ve really tried to drive because now we all know that to get to where we want to go, we need each other, so there’s a great synergy and connection between us.
“Most importantly, I think this is a group that genuinely believes they have everything they need to win in terms of past experiences, current form and self-belief … They’ve been on a journey and I feel like we’re in a really good place.”
Although the game plan has largely remained the same in the crossover between the coaches, Ryan has made some small tweaks to bring more depth to their attacking line.
Under Marinkovich, Alice Teague-Neeld was the team’s starting goal attack, but this year she’s played a lot more netball at wing attack.
This has allowed long-bomb shooter Sasha Glasgow to take on a starting role and bring more height to the circle.
Meanwhile, midcourter and pocket rocket Emma Cosh has also moonlighted in goal attack a number of times this season, giving the side more variety and the ability to keep the opposition guessing.
“Those two have been outstanding for us along that attacking transverse line and we know that if we have everyone playing their part and producing what they’re capable of, that we’re hard to beat.”
So much of what happens on Sunday will revolve around Jhaniele Fowler, as the four-time Super Netball season MVP looks to back up her impressive performance in the semi-final — 67 goals at 97 per cent.
If the Vixens can do the hard yards to keep the Fever’s feeders off circle edge, forcing a longer pass into Fowler, they’ll have a chance to win back ball. But that’s something that sounds relatively easy in theory and is actually much harder to execute.
During his time with the Thunderbirds, Ryan was faced with the tough task of trying to shut the 1.96m tall Jamaican down and every year she’s become harder to defend as she continues to evolve and develop her game.
Now they’re on the same team, Ryan says it’s been a pleasure to have such a “weapon” at the Fever and that Fowler is so much more than just a tall shooter.
“We’ve been focusing on adding some subtle incremental gains into the way that Jhaniele uses and operates her body inside that circle,” Ryan said.
“She spends a lot of time with me looking at video and I think she’s really improved in demanding more from the players in front to make her job easier.
The Fever will host the Vixens on Sunday night at Perth Stadium in the Grand Final from 5:00pm WST/7:00pm AEST.
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