Lightning beat Thunder to win second title in a row

Loughborough Lightning celebrate
Lightning won the Super League in 2021 and 2023 [Getty Images]

Loughborough Lightning beat four-time champions Manchester Thunder 70-54 to win a second consecutive Netball Super League (NSL) title at Resorts World Arena in Birmingham.

Thunder struggled to recover from a nervy start as Lightning dominated a thrilling final to secure their third title in four years.

At the final whistle Lightning's players hugged each other and danced with the crowd of more than 8,000, a record for a Super League Grand Final.

"Unbelievable, to win a final against a team like Thunder is always tough," said head coach Vic Burgess.

"To get a 16-goal win in a final is unbelievable. Back-to-back, which is exactly what we set out to do, so I'm very proud. They deserve it - they're a formidable team."

It is the first time a team has won consecutive titles since Surrey Storm in 2015 and 2016 and captain Natalie Panagarry said it was important to keep the goal in mind.

"We had a talk about a month ago. We were literally like ‘this is not good enough’. We weren’t speaking about going back-to-back - it wasn’t in the language as much as it was at the start of the season," she said.

"The staff put ownership on us and said ‘do you actually want to win this? Don’t be scared of it and own it’. So for four weeks we’ve had the trophy at training sessions and weights, we’ve been seeing it, wanting it and keeping it at ours."

This was the last season of the NSL in its current guise as it relaunches in 2025, in a move towards professionalisation.

Thunder started poorly and some sloppy play and wayward passing left them trailing by six after just nine minutes.

Defensive pair Shadine van der Merwe and Josie Huckle combined well to close the gap to two after the opening quarter and the introduction of South Africa shooter Elmere van der Berg immediately provided a smoother path to goal for Thunder.

But Lightning were slick in attack and Rhea Dixon and Mary Cholhok, the league's top goal scorer, provided outlets for the defending champions to take a 33-27 lead at half-time.

Lightning continued to build their lead in the third quarter and, trailing by 10, Thunder head coach Karen Greig made changes in an attempt to win and keep hold of the ball to better effect.

The only defeat Thunder had tasted during the regular season came against Lightning and Greig delivered a rousing team talk before the final period, urging her players to "show how much they want it".

But a seven-goal deficit proved too much as Lightning were composed in possesion, appearing to win every ball and forcing errors from Thunder.

Dixon led from the front, missing just one of her 20 shots, while Panagarry provided the engine in mid-court and Beth Cobden, who missed most of last season through injury, was a solid presence at wing defence.

Thunder had finished top of the league with just one defeat all season but victory for Lightning means they will enter the new phase of elite netball in the UK as champions.

Tough to carry on 'knowing club won't exist next season'

The 2025 relaunch is seen as a necessary step on the way to the NSL being a fully professional league, but the party atmosphere in Birmingham was tinged with an air of sadness at the thought that some may have played their last Super League matches.

There were emotional scenes for Severn Stars after they lost their third-place play-off match 52-48 to London Pulse, with many of the players in tears after the final whistle - hugging and consoling each other.

Stars are one of four teams - along with Team Bath, Surrey Storm and Strathclyde Sirens - to not be included in the 2025 relaunch.

Despite the loss on Saturday, this season has been Stars' best in the NSL - after they finished inside the top four for the first time in their history - and captain Gabby Marshall said it is a "bittersweet" moment.

"The last two months hasn’t felt like real life. To be playing in a team that you know is not going to exist next season but you’ve made the top four," she said.

"It’s a unique circumstance and it is bittersweet. But to handle the news that your club is not going to exist next season, we’ve handled it with grace and dignity and respect, but still kept our eyes on the ball."

The NSL will include eight teams next season instead of 10, with new franchises Nottingham Forest and Birmingham Panthers joining.

Along with the reduction of squads from 12 players to 10, it leaves many players searching for contracts or facing a decision about their future in the sport.

"It's been an emotional time across the board for all clubs," said Marshall.

"Every circumstance is very unique and it poses a lot of challenges for all players, depending on circumstances."

The signing window for the new season opens on Monday.