Dana Johannsen: Back to the drawing board

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With the faint mathematical play-off hopes of the Canterbury Tactix and the Southern Steel being dashed in round 12, it leaves only the Silver Fern-laden Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic to fly the Kiwi flag in the ANZ Championship play-offs. The Mystics and the Pulse are long gone.

The overall failure of the New Zealand sides to fire in the transtasman league has many asking just what will it take for the Kiwi franchises to find success in the tough and brutal competition?

And who better to ask than the women who will be charged with the responsibility of turning their sides' fortunes around next year.

It's going to be a long off-season for Northern Mystics coach Yvonne Willering, Kate Carpenter of the Central Pulse, Canterbury Tactix coach Helen Mahon-Stroud and Southern Steel mentor Robyn Broughton. They have all been forced to go back to the drawing board to try to find the magic formula to be a force in the league.

While each of the franchises have faced their own unique challenges this season, they all agree that with a number of internal and external changes their sides will be better placed to have a crack next season.

The ANZ Championship has unearthed not only the vast gulf that exists in player depth, but also disparities in umpiring interpretations, import rulings and player contracting, which has made life difficult for the Kiwi sides.

So what can they do about it?

Train longer, harder

The much-publicised hold-ups in the player contracting process meant the Kiwi sides were behind the eightball from the outset.

While the Kiwi franchises were busy wrangling with Netball New Zealand and the New Zealand Netball Players Association in setting up a collective agreement, the Australian sides already had the bulk of their squads together and were in training.

Northern Mystics coach Yvonne Willering believes her side will benefit from a much longer build-up to next season as it will give them a chance to concentrate on fitness and skillwork.

"Now the competition is all set up, all that sort of stuff will be done a heck of a lot earlier," she said.

"We weren't even allowed to contract players until the 15th of January this year, so there's a lot of issues like that that have already been addressed,"

"Everyone will have learnt from this season and certainly as a coach the main thing is that you want your players earlier than we got them this year."

It is also apparent the Australian sides have better grasped the idea of a semi-professional era and are putting in a lot more hours in training.

But the hands of the Kiwi coaches are effectively tied by the New Zealand Netball Players Association, which stipulates during the season that the playing, training and promotional activities of the team cannot exceed 20 hours a week.

It further outlines that players will not be required to attend a training session between the hours of 9 to 5.

Willering believes this clause needs further consideration heading into next season.

"We can't just get by on night trainings, and I know the Players Association have a view on that, but there's got to be give and take then as to when you actually do the training and the quality of the trainings."

Umpiring

The inconsistencies in umpiring interpretations between the two countries has emerged as the controversial issue of the inaugural year.

Visiting teams have often been heavily penalised in transtasman battles as they struggle to get their heads around the interpretations of the local umpires.

While several Australian coaches have been outspoken about the umpiring here, it seems it is the New Zealand sides who have struggled the most to adjust to the different umpiring calls.

No Kiwi side has been able to record a win in Australia so far this season - though the Mystics and the Tactix still have an opportunity to do so over the remaining rounds.

Tactix coach Helen Mahon-Stroud, whose side have copped two heavy losses in Australia over the last few weeks, believes before next season there needs to be a global meeting of umpires and coaches to develop a greater understanding of the interpretations in each country.

"We want to be competitive in Australia," said Mahon-Stroud.

"Really in order for the competition to go forward next year, I think the whole competition needs to look for some consistency in the rulings."

Willering has echoed the sentiments of her Canterbury counterpart and believes the umpiring situation needs a thorough review at the end of the season.

She said ANZ Championship management needed to look at having one New Zealand and one Australian umpire officiate transtasman games.

"If it's just a question of money then that's something that has to be addressed. Because the umpires are very much part of the whole game."

Willering also asserts umpires here need more training opportunities and would benefit greatly from having the chance to umpire games in Australia and vice versa.

Imports

Most coaches agree the added restrictions on imports for New Zealand franchises is also an area that needs to be addressed ahead of next season. Australian franchises are able to sign two ineligible players, whereas for the Kiwi sides their first allowable ineligible player must reside in New Zealand, and a second import can only be signed with the approval of Netball New Zealand.

Willering said the rules put New Zealand at a huge disadvantage.

"It needs to be the same for everybody," said Willering. "You look at it, the Firebirds have really benefited from having the two imports and Netball Australia's reason for allowing it was that Queensland want to be competitive. But we all want to be competitive."

The current rules also make recruitment extremely difficult for the Kiwi sides as they cannot guarantee overseas stars a place on their roster.

Play smarter

While there are a certain number of external factors that have impacted negatively on the Kiwi teams, there can be no escaping the fact that the Australian sides have much greater depth in terms of playing talent and, on the whole, the players are more skillful.

The only way to ensure long-term success for Kiwi teams in the league is to address the skill shortage in New Zealand's elite players.

But the New Zealand coaches all agree this year's experience will serve them well heading into next year.

Willering said after her Mystics' dismal start to the season, the improvement her side have shown over the past couple of weeks shows they are already making some of the necessary adjustments.

"Our own players have seen it themselves, they're now saying 'if only'," she said.

Southern Steel coach Robyn Broughton said for a number of young and inexperienced players in her side, this season has been their first taste of playing the Australians at this level. But with players like New Zealand Under-21 shooter Julianna Naoupu standing out for her side over the past few weeks, it all bodes well for the future.

- NZ Herald

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