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The North West Flames sealed third spot on the Brutal Fruit Netball Premier League log with a victory over the Mpumalanga Sunbirds at the University of Pretoria’s Rembrandt Hall on Saturday.

While the scoreboard read 51-30 to the Flames, it was a far tighter contest than may have been predicted. That had a lot to do with the fact that Flames coach Elsjé Jordaan mixed up her combinations and made sure her younger, less experienced players got plenty of time on court in preparation for next weekend’s playoffs.

The teams reached the end of the first quarter with just two goals between them, and while that difference had stretched to six by half time, it was really in the third and fourth periods that the Flames found their groove and took the game away from the Mpumalanga team.

“For us we just needed the two points so I decided beforehand I wanted to play all 12 players so I mixed it up,” said Jordaan afterwards. “I mixed the youngsters in at the beginning so I had a very young attack and then once the experience came on, you could just see it.

“We were just in it for the points and to make sure we had a happy squad with everyone getting some playing time on court. In that sense, goal achieved, but there were a few too many mistakes – too many attacking errors and the defence was too loose but you can’t be on the players all the time so I thought I’d let them be, enjoy it, have some fun and get some court time.”

Sunbirds coach Marlie Nel said: “It was much better than I expected actually. We were just preparing for tomorrow’s playoffs to try and finish in a higher position than last year. I believe all the players played their hearts out.”

Having secured that third spot, the Flames will play their quarter-final match against the KZN Kingdom Stars next Friday.

“Obviously the competition starts all over again so they’ll be quite hungry and for us it’s about securing that semi-final position,” said Jordaan.

The Sunbirds, meanwhile, will tackle the first of their position eight to 10 playoff matches tomorrow against the Eastern Cape Aloes. The two teams played to a draw the last time they met.

“We are hoping for a better game than the last one. I think mentally we are prepared this time. The team we travelled with this week is also a stronger team, so I believe we can do it. In my heart I believe my players are up to it,” said Nel.

Meanwhile, the Western Cape Southern Stings confirmed their status as one of the tournament favourites by claiming a comfortable 74-27 victory over the Limpopo Baobabs. True to tournament form, it was a relatively strong first half from the Baobabs, reaching half time 12 goals adrift of the Stings. But they struggled to keep that momentum going in the third and fourth quarters and fell way further behind.

The Stings’ second place on the log behind the Gauteng Jaguars has guaranteed them passage straight through to next Saturday’s semi-finals, where they’ll meet either the Free State Crinums or the Gauteng Golden Fireballs. The Crinums and Fireballs will meet in Friday’s quarter-finals.

Heading into the match against the Baobabs with their semi-final spot already secured, Stings coach Annelie Lucas explained: “We just wanted to tidy up the game. It started slow and we weren’t happy with the way things were going, but we knew the Baobabs are a very strong team in the first two quarters, so we knew it was going to be tough.  We just wanted to keep the standard we set for ourselves and play the ball the whole time. We tried a few new combinations and they did well.

“We’re happy we don’t have to play the quarter-finals. The team worked hard for that and it doesn’t matter which one of the Crinums or Fireballs we play – all the teams that go through to the semi-finals will be good teams and everybody will want that spot in the finals, so we’ll go back on Monday and start from scratch,” added the coach.

The Baobabs will face the bottom-of-the-log Northern Cape Diamonds in the eighth to 10th place playoffs.

Later on Saturday, the Fireballs’ victory over the struggling Diamonds was never in doubt. They leapt to a 5-0 lead before the opposition could register a score, and that pretty much set the pattern for the rest of the match. The lead was 37-15 by half time and 70-32 by the final whistle.

Fireballs coach Dorette Badenhorst said: “I think it’s a game we needed to get confidence again [after losing to the Stings last week]. There were great things happening for the Fireballs. We’re a strong team, strong players – if we can be there at the right time, we can beat any team and we’ll be back stronger next week.”

Meanwhile, one achievement the Diamonds could at least celebrate at the end of the evening was the fact that their 32 goals contributed to their highest total scored against the Fireballs in tournament history.