Netball Superleague: Tracey Neville hails 'one of the most competitive seasons'
|Netball Superleague Final Four at Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham|
|Saturday 10 June - semi-finals||Sunday 11 June - finals|
|Loughborough v Team Bath (16:00 BST)||Third place play-off (14:30 BST)|
|Wasps v Manchester Thunder (18:15 BST)||Grand Final (17:00 BST)|
Expanding Superleague has made it "much more competitive" as the top four teams challenge for the title this weekend, says England head coach Tracey Neville.
The top division of British netball was expanded to 10 teams for this season, with Loughborough Lightning, Team Bath, Wasps and Manchester Thunder reaching the play-offs.
"This has been one of the closest seasons in recent years," said Neville.
"Our league is getting better and becoming higher quality."
She told BBC Sport: "The games are a lot closer and there are a lot more within 10 goals - which is a real positive."
Loughborough topped the Superleague table after 18 rounds of fixtures and will start the Final Four weekend at Birmingham's Barclaycard Arena as favourites.
But no side has previously finished top at the end of the regular season and gone on to take the title - something Lightning will be looking to change this weekend.
They face Team Bath in the first semi-final before last season's beaten finalists, Manchester Thunder, take on one of the three new franchises in Wasps.
Scottish Sirens and Severn Stars were also granted places in Superleague, while Yorkshire Jets were removed.
And Neville believes the competition has benefitted as a result.
"It has been really exciting with the new franchises," added Neville. "Increasing the number of teams has made it much more competitive.
"There has been a lot of movement of players and it has shaken up the teams which have been relatively stable over the last few years.
"It has opened up more opportunities for English players and it's really good we've had a restriction on the number of imports into the league."
BBC Sport looks ahead to Saturday's two semi-finals:
Loughborough Lightning v Team Bath
Loughborough Lightning have lost just once all season, a 57-54 defeat by Wasps in April, and begin the weekend as frontrunners.
They have beaten their semi-final opponents Team Bath in both regular season games and have the league's best shooter in Peace Proscovia.
But Saturday's first semi-final will see the Uganda international face up against Superleague's best defence.
Loughborough head coach Karen Atkinson told BBC Sport: "This season has been fantastic. Nobody was talking about us pre-season, it was more about the new franchises.
"We are approaching the semi-final as just another game. We're trying not to create too much hype and aren't focusing on the favourites tag.
"We have to stand up to the Bath defence in our shooting circle but we have one of the best attackers in the league in Peace Proscovia.
"Ella Clark (goal attack) will not be fit to play - she sustained a severe knee injury last week but Vanessa Walker is ready to go."
Loughborough face a Team Bath side who only secured their place in Saturday's semi-finals on the final day of the season, pipping Surrey Storm to fourth spot, despite defeat by Wasps.
After a slow start to the season, the five-time champions are coming into form at the right time having recorded seven consecutive victories in the latter stages.
"It was a real turnaround in the second half of the season," said Team Bath head coach Anna Stembridge.
"We knew we had to get those wins under our belts - the girls have been brilliant in getting their heads down, trusting the process and themselves.
"Loughborough have Peace in the shooting circle, who has been prolific this year, but we really need to look how we can win ball before it gets to her.
"We are very lucky to have different styles both in our shooting circle and particularly our goal-attack bib and we are very confident in the depth of our squad."
Key battle: Peace Proscovia (GS, Loughborough) v Eboni Beckford-Chambers (GK, Bath)
Analysis - England head coach Tracey Neville
In the team of the season Eboni Beckford-Chambers would be my keeper of the year and Peace Proscovia would be my shooter.
Beckford-Chambers has got great agility, she's clever and can mentally get into the head of a shooter.
Whoever wins that match up is likely to win that game.
|2016 - Surrey Storm||2015 - Surrey Storm|
|2014 - Manchester Thunder||2013 - Team Bath|
|2012 - Northern Thunder (now Manchester Thunder)||2011 - Hertfordshire Mavericks|
|2010 - Team Bath||2009 - Team Bath|
|2008 - Hertfordshire Mavericks||2007 - Team Bath|
|2006 - Team Bath|
Wasps v Manchester Thunder
Wasps - the only new franchise to make it into the post-season play-offs - finished second in the regular season, losing just four times in the process.
Director of netball and head coach Tamsin Greenway left Surrey Storm after coaching them to a second successive Grand Final triumph and moved to Coventry to join the Wasps family.
Despite announcing her retirement in 2015, the former England attacker's role at Wasps has involved regular court-time this season.
Greenway said: "Our aim was to make the top four and we've done that in style. I'm pretty happy but we are still going to finals this weekend to win it.
"It hasn't been the smoothest season but the players have bought into the way I wanted to play.
"The semi-final is the worst game of the season, it's all or nothing. But the way we are playing at the moment, we will be a very difficult team to beat.
"Me playing was not in the plan originally. I hadn't played for 18 months and there was no intention to step back out on the court. We had two major injuries to two key players.
Asked if she will be putting on a starting bib on Saturday, Greenway said: "If anybody has been following us for the past few weeks, they can see how we've been playing. I don't tend to chop and change things."
This year has also been a season of change for former champions Manchester Thunder.
The 2012 and 2014 winners, who were beaten by Storm in last year's final, lost their full-starting seven from the 2016 final in the close season.
Karen Greig was promoted from assistant coach to director of netball after Australian Dan Ryan's departure and the former England shooter has overseen a rebuilding process this season, guiding her side to a third-place finish in the league.
Wasps and Manchester Thunder shared the spoils in the regular season, with both sides winning away from home.
"We ended up losing our whole starting seven from last season, whether it was to Australia or New Zealand or to the new franchises, so we were pretty much decimated and we weren't given much hope at the start," said Greig.
"I picked a squad that I believed in from the start and I think they've managed to prove everybody wrong - we've had a great season.
"For us to make top four in my first season with a brand new squad is a pretty good result.
"Anything can happen in the play-offs, it's like the FA Cup. We start as underdogs but we like that tag."
Key battle: Bongiwe Msomi (C/WA, Wasps) v Liana Leota (C/WA, Manchester)
Analysis - England head coach Tracey Neville
The Thunder attack of Kathryn Turner, Joyce Mvulu and Liana Leota - if they can convert every one of their centre passes, that puts pressure on Wasps.
But the connection between Tamsin Greenway and Rachel Dunn needs to be stopped by Thunder - I am expecting Tamsin to start.