The Celtic Dragons began their Vitality Netball Superleague campaign with an agonizing, but encouraging 44-43 defeat to Surrey Storm at the weekend. But despite a huge turnaround in players, former Dragon Suzy Drane tells Graham Thomas she feels optimistic about this season.
The Celtic Dragons can overcome the loss of key players and prove themselves a surprise package in netball’s Superleague this season – according to the woman who was once their heartbeat.
Suzy Drane – a key player for the Dragons for over a decade and a Wales legend who reached the 100-cap mark last season – believes the team’s youngsters can rise to the challenge created by major change at the club over the past few months.
With the Vitality Superleague season having just begun, Wales’ only representatives at the top level of British netball have undergone a major overhaul.
Gone are the mainstays of the franchise for the past few seasons – players such as Drane, former captain Nia Jones, and fellow experienced Wales internationals Kyra Jones, Bethan Dyke and Chelsea Lewis.
Gone, too, are last season’s overseas international pair Kalifa McCollin and Stacian Facey.
It’s a collective loss of talent and streetwise know-how that already has some predicting a season of struggle, but Drane sees opportunities rather than a looming crisis.
“Look at the Welsh Rugby Union,” says Drane, who left the Dragons to join Bath Toucans in the level beneath Superleague, but is still available to Wales.
“The rugby team have had the same kind of major turnaround on their coaching side, but it doesn’t seem to have affected them too much because the foundations were in place.
“I think the Celtic Dragons will find it difficult at times, but I think they’ll adjust. What’s really exciting is that there are some talented Welsh youngsters coming through – like Shona O’Dwyer and Eleri Michael – and also Lucy Howells who’s still there from last year.
“They can now seize their opportunity and gain huge experience which will be good for both the Dragons in the long-term and for Wales.”
The Dragons have retained their head coach from last season, Tania Hoffman, but out on the court it’s all change.
At 32, Drane opted to take advantages of work opportunities as a lecturer at Cardiff Met University by stepping down a level.
Nia Jones and Dyke chose to join the Dragons’ Superleague rivals Seven Stars, Kyra Jones has switched to playing Aussie Rules, while Lewis and her partner, Wales rugby star Adam Beard, announced they are expecting a baby.
From the outside, the exodus suggests a club that may have lost its appeal, but Drane insists that is not the case for a franchise that finished seventh in the 10-club league last season.
“Anyone on the outside of a sporting organisation can look in and see what they think is going on. But the fact is we all had our different reasons for leaving and people on the inside know that.
“For me, it was the right time because of my work opportunities, which might not have come around again.
“For others, there were other factors. Kyra has been playing some Aussie Rules. Chelsea has her own very exciting news about becoming a mum. Nia wanted to join the Stars and work again with (coach) Melissa Hyndman. Beth was moving up to Birmingham.
“There was no hidden agenda here, for me. There has been a big turnover of players, but sometimes sport works to certain cycles.”
Coming in to fill the void, the Dragons have recruited Jamaican pair Rebekah Robinson and Latanya Wilson, as well as O’Dwyer, who moves in the opposite direction to Nia Jones and Dyke, from Seven Stars.
Don’t be sad today is over, smile because the season is only just beginning… 😃
— Vitality Netball Superleague (@NetballSL) February 22, 2020
Paige Kindred has arrived from champions Manchester Thunder, while Amy Clinton has joined from Loughborough Lightning. Former Wales age-group captain Sophie Morgan has returned to the Dragons after spells with both Thunder and Surrey Storm.
Drane insists it’s not just the Dragons who have experienced a major turnover in players. Other franchises have gone through similar upheavals as all teams adjust to the new rules on squad numbers.
Match day squads have been reduced from 12 to 10 players, meaning fewer opportunities for some players – although teams are now allowed to have five additional players as “training partners”.
“I think the league may be tighter this season,” adds Drane. “More players have moved because they wanted to be in that 10-player squad.
“Having those two extra spots in the wider group, gives more experience to players for development, which is really important.
“The Dragons have a few players who have been recruited from England, but that’s nothing new. A lot of players always used to come over the Bridge from Bath. Plus, we’ve very often taken a couple of players from overseas.
“I think they will be aiming for a higher finish than seventh. You never want to just stand still.
“But what’s really exciting is the new young players in the Wales long squad who have their opportunity. That keeps me feeling fresh and motivated. When you stop learning, it’s time to stop playing.”