Borders, isolation and injuries: How the Swifts and Giants overcame the odds for an all-NSW semifinal

Helen Housby and the Swifts will meet the Giants in an all-NSW semi-final this weekend Jason McCawley/Getty Images

It was the call that left NSW Swifts coach Briony Akle laughing and Helen Housby in tears.

On June 23, whispers of another Sydney lockdown grew louder as the delta strain of COVID-19 found new ground in the Harbour City.

After a season of chaos, Super Netball officials took no chances and within hours the Swifts and cross-town rivals the Giants were headed off to Queensland.

Seven weeks later, they're still there. With a few stops in between.

What befell them few expected, least of all Akle who initially brought two of her sons, Xavier and Charlie, along for the ride.

"Our manager called us to say 'I think NSW is going into a lockdown and we'll be going to Queensland today.' I actually laughed and said 'that's ridiculous, you need to turn your phone off and enjoy your day off. That's not happening.' Within two hours of that phone call, I basically got the call to say we'll be on a six o'clock flight, start packing," Akle told ESPN.

"It was probably a four hour turnaround from getting that call to getting in the car for Sydney Airport. In the back of my mind, I thought 'here we go again' but at that stage I took two of my kids because we thought we'd only be away for a couple of weeks... that they could go home at the end of school holidays and seven weeks later we're still away.

"There's lots of emotions obviously, leaving your family not knowing what COVID presents. It seems like we've been playing hide and seek with COVID to get away from it, so that day was certainly another testing day."

Sacrifice is what comes to mind when ensuring the continuation of the Super Netball season.

With some earning as little as $33,000 a season, many Super Netball players have second jobs or are studying on the side. Then there's the family factor.

Players and staff alike have had to leave their loved ones behind, not knowing how long the Super Netball roadshow would last for.

For Housby, the Swifts shooter, it meant saying goodbye to her partner just two days before his birthday.

"If I'm going to be very honest, I cried," Housby said of the call.

"I think it was the realisation that the season wasn't going to be a normal one.

"When we were told we had to leave, I had the feeling that we weren't going back to Sydney judging on the year we had previously.

"I think it all came rushing back. There was a lot of emotion and a lot of difficulty. Once we settled in Brisbane for that first night, it made it a lot easier to process.

"It's been a bit of a whirlwind but when there's moments of calm, that's been really special and being able to appreciate what we're allowed to do. We can still train, play and still have jobs. We're lucky in that respect."

Housby described the last seven weeks as "almost a tour of Australia with some netball matches thrown in," as the Sydney-based teams endured four relocations.

As the delta strain hit the eastern seaboard, the Swifts and Giants moved from Brisbane to Melbourne, and then to Adelaide - before returning to the Sunshine State again.

Their belongings were left across the country and in the Giants' case, a truckload didn't reach the Adelaide hub before they jetted off to Queensland in late July.

"I've been amazed with how resilient the team has been," Coach Julie Fitzgerald said of the Giants.

"In most cases when we've moved, we've had two to three hours to pack up everything. Once we started moving around Australia we've had to leave half of our belongings behind and they've been trucked over.

"There's been all sorts of challenges and they've just accepted them."

Not only have belongings been left behind state borders, but coaches and staff as well.

Akle and the Swifts' physiotherapist had been forced to isolate in Adelaide with their children after being deemed close contacts of someone who visited a Tier 1 exposure site in Melbourne when the team were based there.

She coached her team via Zoom while stranded more than 2000km away at a crucial time in the season with finals on the horizon.

Assistant coach Bec Bulley, also a former Swift, took the helm at the court - while Akle was able to connect with the team during the half-time break.

All the while taking care of her two boys.

"Getting that balance right between how much time the kids need versus a professional netball team is extremely challenging, but the team has been really flexible," Akle said.

"They've been great and certainly helped me out when I had the kids here with anything we needed. So the support from the wider Swifts family here has certainly got me through. Extremely helpful."

None have done it tougher this Super Netball season than the two NSW-based teams, who remarkably finished first and second on the table amid the relocation chaos.

For the ladder-leading Giants, claiming a second minor-premiership meant overcoming the COVID-19 obstacles as well as hits to their available roster.

Diamonds shooter Kiera Austin was ruled out with a season-ending ACL tear in round one, paving the way for 19-year-old Sophie Dwyer to step up and make her mark on the team.

Injuries came back to haunt the Giants with defenders April Brandley and Tilly McDonell absent for their final match of the regular season against the West Coast Fever, with minor premiership in the line.

But with eight players eligible and fit to take the court, they beat the Fever with a gritty 75-73 win to finish atop of the ladder and break their three-year finals drought.

"We've always had the attitude that whoever is available to us can do the job and I think that showed on the weekend," Fitzgerald said.

"No matter who is out we have enough to cover it to hopefully continue on.

"The [minor premiership] was particularly precious for us because we were just delighted to make the finals, having not for the last couple of years.

"Even though we have a few tough games ahead it was nice to have the little reward along the way."

With the Giants beating Fever and the Swifts claiming a 69-64 win over the Sunshine Coast Lightning, the two NSW teams will meet in a major semifinal clash at Nissan Arena on Saturday.

It means Netball NSW is guaranteed at least one team in the title decider, with the loser to then meet the winner of Fever and Lightning for a second chance to secure a grand final ticket.

The teams have a one-one record this season and although the Giants finished first, the Swifts have the upper hand when it comes to finals experience.

Only five Giants have played finals before, while most of the Swifts team were part of the roster that won the 2019 title. They're also heading into a third consecutive finals series.

"It's huge to be in the finals. It's a testament to the hard work we've been putting in... I think in the year we've had it makes it all the more sweeter to finish in the top two and have two bites of the cherry," Housby said.

"Everyone wants to win it more than anything this year, just for a little bit of payoff with all the movements and sacrifices. This is where you want to be.

"The Swifts are historically a great club when it comes to finals and winning championships, so we want to continue that legacy and are going to do everything we can to bring the trophy home.

"I'm really excited for the derby, I'm excited for the pressure and the feel of it. Going into the Giants game, you know it's going to be difficult and mentally tough... there's a lot of emotions between these two teams.

"We see each other almost everyday in Sydney but once you step onto the court it's pretty hostile and feisty, but I love it to be that way and I think it brings out the best competitor in everyone."

Akle, who is up against her former coach in Fitzgerald, said the Swifts looked in fine form after playing two games in seven days last round.

This week's longer turnaround has given them time to recover and prepare for the Giants clash, which both coaches hope can give their NSW-based fans something to smile about in lockdown.

"Getting some balance back is really lovely," Akle said.

"We're excited and know what's coming. It's going to be an awesome battle, whenever you play your crosstown rivals it brings that little bit of extra pressure because you both want it so badly.

"And Julie used to be my coach, I know that she's ruthless and so competitive. We're in for a physical and it'll probably come down to the wire."

Adding to the season's silver lining, the Swifts had five players named in the Diamonds 2021-22 squad while the Giants had three.