Netball Superleague 2020: Five talking points for the opening weekend

By Denise EvansBBC Sport
Manchester Thunder play Wasps
Champions Manchester Thunder face Wasps on the opening day of the Superleague season - a repeat of the 2019 Grand Final

Manchester Thunder begin the defence of their Superleague title this weekend, with the season opener in Birmingham involving all 10 teams.

As the Black and Yellows start their quest for a fourth crown, BBC Sport takes a look at the five key things you need to know for the new season.

When does it start?

The 2020 term sees an extra fixture added, with all 10 sides playing a season-opener at Arena Birmingham on Saturday, 22 February.

The five fixtures begin with Strathclyde Sirens against London Pulse and culminate in a replay of the 2019 Grand Final between Thunder and Wasps.

It's a move that received a mixed reaction, with Loughborough Lightning head coach Sara Bayman calling it "senseless".

In other changes, fans will see Saracens Mavericks switch their team colours from purple and black to red and black, in line with their parent Premiership rugby union club, Saracens.

Ones to watch

Liana Leota, Jodie Gibson, Sigi Burger, Lauren Ngwira and Khanyisa Chawane
Ones to watch (left to right) Liana Leota, Jodie Gibson, Sigi Burger, Lauren Ngwira and Khanyisa Chawane

There's been plenty of movement in the Superleague off season, with players swapping allegiances, new international faces strengthening squads and stalwart players retiring to make way for fresh, young blood.

Liana Leota (wing attack) - Manchester Thunder to Severn Stars: At 35, former New Zealand international Leota remains at the top of her game and her experience is expected to be a real asset to one of the league's newest sides.

She left the Black and Yellows after four seasons during which she was named in the Superleague All-Star VII twice and won the title in 2019. She will take up a player-coach role at Stars.

Jodie Gibson (goal defence/goalkeeper) - Severn Stars to Saracens Mavericks: A Commonwealth gold medallist with England, Gibson, 27, has stepped up her rehabilitation from a serious knee injury over the winter which ruled her out of the Netball World Cup last July, and is set to be fit for her new side's opening game.

Sigi Burger (goal shooter/goal attack) Surrey Storm to London Pulse: South Africa international Burger, 23, who featured for the Proteas in the recent Nations Cup tournament, was Storm's standout player in 2019 and should thrive at Pulse.

Lauren Ngwira (goal defence/goalkeeper) - London Pulse to Manchester Thunder: Ngwira joins the champions and Malawi team-mate Joyce Mvula with huge shoes to fill, following the retirement of stalwart goalkeeper Kerry Almond after more than 10 seasons with the club.

The 25-year-old has already shown signs she can slot into the defensive circle alongside captain Emma Dovey in Thunder's pre-season games.

Khanyisa Chawane (centre/wing defence) - Team Bath: Chawane, 24, had a solid World Cup and Nations Cup campaign with South Africa, and with England international Serena Guthrie not in action this season, she will be expected to step up and fill the void, something she is capable of.

Who are the title favourites?

It's hard to look past reigning champions Manchester Thunder, who haven't missed out on the play-offs since previously scooping the title in 2014, finishing as runners-up in 2016 and third in both 2017 and 2018.

Wasps have lost South Africa captain Bongi Msomi who has retuned to her homeland, but with Iona Christian joining from Severn Stars, experienced Sophia Candappa returning from maternity leave and England's most-capped player Jade Clarke in the side, it will be a shock if they don't make the semi-finals.

Team Bath have lost England centre Serena Guthrie as she takes time out from the game, but they still have an abundance of players with Superleague court time to challenge last season's top two.

Saracens Mavericks have a strong attacking line-up with England's Sasha Corbin and George Fisher leading the line and should again compete for a top four play-off spot, along with Loughborough Lightning who will once again be led by last season's coach of the year, Sara Bayman.

What about the rest?

The league's only Scottish outfit, the Strathclyde Sirens, are yet to find consistency since their debut in 2016, only managing three wins in 2019.

However, they have brought in South Africa defender Zanele Vimbela and will have new Scottish Thistles head coach Tamsin Greenway's experience as a serial Superleague-winning coach and player.

London Pulse will look to fare better than their last-place finish in 2019, and with Burger joining star player Chiara Semple in the shooting circle, they have a good chance of climbing up the table.

Surrey Storm teetered around the play-offs during 2019, with some exciting wins over Lightning and Sirens to give them plenty of optimism for 2020, despite losing Burger and her Proteas team-mate Shadine van der Merwe to Adelaide Thunderbirds.

Celtic Dragons huffed and puffed in 2019 but never quite hit their best, which was a similar story for Severn Stars, who are sure to utilise the experience of former England captain Ama Agbeze, who has joined from Pulse.

New season, new rules

Teams returned to pre-season training in autumn 2019 and a new transfer windowexternal-link between 1 August and 8 January - similar to the one used in football - was introduced.

Franchises can have a maximum of 15 players in their squad and 10 on a match day, which has been reduced from 12 in 2019.

A number of rule changesexternal-link will come into force on a season-long trial basis, to bring the Superleague in line with international standards. One of the main changes is that players will be permitted to request a substitution in the same way they are allowed to ask for time for an injury or illness.