Manchester Thunder secured a comfortable win over Team Northumbria in their opening fixture of the 2016 Vitality Superleague season in Birmingham.
Playing in the inaugural Super Saturday event, where all eight teams in the country's top flight competed on the same day at the Genting Arena, Thunder were not at their vintage best, but their quality showed in the final quarter.
Coach Dan Ryan was pleased with his team's overall performance and relieved to get a win in his first competitive match at the helm.
He said: "The first game of the season is always going to be difficult, with a big crowd, but I was testing a lot of different combinations out there so it's never going to go as smoothly as we'd all like. Full credit to the players for getting out there and pushing on in the second half against quite tenacious opposition. I'm pleased I got 11 of my 12 out on court, and Amy Clinton will get her chance."
It was a dream debut for Kiwi international Liana Leota, who was named player of the match.
The experienced wing attack, who admitted to feeling nervous in the first quarter, said: "I really felt I wasn't playing that well at first but then I found my rhythm. I think we'll need to work on our second and third quarters as I think we dropped off there. Team Northumbria had some great athleticism and came out of nowhere with passes at times so we had to be ready for that. "It was great to get out there and nice to be playing with all the girls."
It was a nervous opening from Thunder and they started sluggishly, with some limp feeds going in to the shooters. And some early misses put unnecessary pressure on shooting pair Ellie Cardwell and Kathryn Turner.
Thunder patiently built up fluidity and momentum to to their play, especially in the centre third. This was primarily due to débutante Leota, who was instrumental with some sharp, imaginative passing.
Thunder were dominating the centre court as the end of the first period approached, but Northumbria had plenty of sass, especially with their new Jamaican import players Shanice Beckford and Nicole Dixon – and experienced shooter Lynsey Armitage.
Team Northumbria's Sunshine Girls continued to cause Thunder problems in defence, and the North East-based team dominated the opening phases of the second quarter.
They came within a goal of Thunder's score, but some inspired play from international import duo Malysha Kelly and Leota helped Thunder regain their composure and build pressure.
The Black and Yellows finished with a flourish at the end of the half, but there will have been plenty of food for thought for coach Dan Ryan at half time, with his attack struggling at certain periods. And he did shuffle his pack, bringing off Cardwell and Turner for Housby and Haythornthwaite respectively.
The changes paid off instantly, with the England pair combining well with Team Northumbria chasing shadows for the opening phases of the quarter.
Haythornthwaite, who was also on court for her Thunder Superleague debut, was looking in particularly good form, scoring several long attempts, with Housby's movement making life easier for Sara Bayman and Leota to feed the ball cleanly.
Northumbria stayed with the 2014 champions goal-for-goal for a time, but a flying Kelly intercept was the spark Thunder needed to push on and they stretched their lead to 11 goals, 42-31 at the end of the third.
Thunder, now playing their most fluid netball of the game, pulled away in the final quarter, dominating in all areas of the court, as Leota was now finding space with ease and Kelly started to pick off rebounds uncontested.
There were moments of real brilliance from the Black and Yellows, with Emma Dovey, who had entered the fray to replace Jodie Gibson at half time, showing great skill to foresee a Northumbria dummy pass and steal possession away. And young centre-courter Gabby Marshall, who replaced Laura Malcolm, had a real habit of popping up with some well-timed intercepts, to take the sting out of any potential Northumbria comeback.
Thunder finished at a canter and will be buoyed by their second half performance,but also well aware that they will need to significantly improve certain areas of their game if they are to challenge for what is expected to be the most hotly contested Superleague title yet. Ahead of what is expected to be one of the toughest Superleague seasons yet.
THUNDER starting 7:: GK Kelly, GD Gibson, WD Malcolm C Bayman, WA Leota, GA Turner, GS Cardwell
Report by Denise Evans : Photo Credit to Steve Porter