Netball: Firebirds' heat ominous sign for Kiwis

By Dana Johannsen

Magic's Jessie Waitapu (left) and Mystics' Rachel Rasmussen in action at Tauranga. Photo / Michael Bradley
Magic's Jessie Waitapu (left) and Mystics' Rachel Rasmussen in action at Tauranga. Photo / Michael Bradley

The Queensland Firebirds have started the 2012 transtasman netball season as they finished in 2011, dominating their competitors at the ANZ Championship preseason tournament in Tauranga at the weekend.

Unbeaten last season, the reigning premiers raised the bar again, outclassing the Melbourne Vixens in yesterday's final.

But after a mixed weekend for the top New Zealand teams, there are concerns over the ability of the Kiwi sides to keep pace with their ever-improving Australian counterparts.

With all 10 franchises using the weekend as an opportunity to experiment with their line-ups and test different combinations, the lack of depth in the New Zealand sides was exposed.

The difference in the speed, footwork and skill level of the Australian bench players compared with that of the second-tier Kiwi players was stark.

The only two teams that look capable of breaking the Australians' stranglehold on the transtasman league - the Magic and the Mystics - finished second in their respective pools to set up a meeting in the 3rd/4th play-off yesterday.

The Magic easily cast aside the Mystics in their final match, blitzing their way to a 51-36 win.

Magic coach Noeline Taurua said it was a pleasing way for her side to end the weekend, but she is conscious of the work that still needs to be done if they are to make up any ground on the Australian teams.

The Magic were blown off the court when they met the Firebirds in pool-play on Saturday, and Taurua is wary of the threat the other Australian teams offer as well.

Even after the late withdrawal of star shooter Sharelle McMahon, who is expecting her first child, the Vixens look formidable, while former Australian coach Norma Plummer has the West Coast Fever side firing.

And while the NSW Swifts and Adelaide Thunderbirds finished down the ladder, both teams were missing key personnel at the weekend and are only set to get stronger.

"[The Australians] have all got that mental hardness and that toughness, and the ones that come off the bench are like that too," Taurua said.

"We know that we're behind the eight-ball in regards to that sort of stuff and that's what the next four to five weeks will be about."

The Magic are the only team in the league to have made the top four every year since the competition's inception. Their consistency is impressive, but their strike rate in the finals is not.

Taurua said the only way her side would break their title drought was by setting clear standards and being uncompromising when it came to meeting those standards.

"One thing about the Magic is that we've always had a really good team culture, but if I'm to be honest, we've never had that performance or winning culture," said Taurua.

"For us to achieve that we need to be way better in our training regime and everything we do."

If, as Taurua asserts, the Magic have a long way to go before they are up to scratch, then the other Kiwi teams have even more ground to make up.

Demolished by 15 goals yesterday, the Mystics looked a shadow of the side who won their way through to the grand final last season, despite adding more strength in the off-season.

The Mystics lacked discipline on attack and defence, with coach Debbie Fuller highlighting her side's inability to convert their turnover ball as a key concern.

After making big strides last season, the Central Pulse showed further improvement under new coach Robyn Broughton, finishing sixth.

If preseason form is anything to go by, it looks as though the two South Island teams - the Tactix and the Steel - will struggle in 2012. Both were on the wrong ends of some big scorelines, with the Tactix just edging past the Steel in yesterday's 9th/10th play-off.

Corletto gets back out in the middle

After Julie Corletto's very public, but unsuccessful, battle to get out of the final year of her contract with the Melbourne Vixens, there was no sign of strain between Corletto and team management at the weekend.

This was despite Corletto, who is considered Australia's top goal defence, being shunted into the midcourt as Vixens coach Julie Hoornweg juggles an overflow of talent.

Corletto spent most of her time in the wing-defence bib at the weekend and even had time at centre.

Her lack of court time at goal defence last season was thought to be a key factor in her grievance with the club after being squeezed out of her favoured position to accommodate the arrival of English star Geva Mentor.

Wilkins ready to deliver

Seven weeks after giving birth to her third child by Caesarean section, former Silver Fern Donna Wilkins was back on court at the weekend for the Southern Steel. Much to her frustration, Wilkins was restricted to just one quarter per match as the coaching staff look to ease her back into action. The super-competitive shooter reckons she could have easily played full games.

'Ways around rules'

The Thunderbirds last week named young defender Amehlia Schmidt as their 12th player. But curiously missing from their release was any explanation of what happened with their bid to sign Jamaican shooter Jhanelle Fowler.

Fowler's inclusion in the line-up was dependent on the success of Carla Borrego's application for Australian citizenship, which doesn't look as though it will be through by the March 23 deadline granted by the league.

So, the Thunderbirds decided to bite the bullet and name Schmidt.

Having now confirmed their line-up, the Thunderbirds are unable to make any further changes, except in the case of illness or injury. But as one wry observer pointed out "there are always ways around rules, and the Thunderbirds are expert navigators".

Thunderbirds coach Jane Woodlands Thompson admitted she hasn't completely closed the door on having Fowler join the team. She said they are still working on getting the 1.98m shooter out to Adelaide.

"Our intention is to have her out here at some stage of the season whether that be as a training partner, or replacement player, if god forbid someone gets injured or something - we're not sure."

What are the odds a Thunderbirds bench player suffers an injury right about the time Borrego's citizenship comes through?

All dressed up

With 17 players switching teams in the off-season and 20 players making their debut in the ANZ Championship, several teams will have a very different look about them this season. And it's not just the team line-ups that are different - the new look playing strips also created a stir at the weekend.

The Central Pulse's fluorescent yellow dress proved the most polarising, some loved their eye-catching new hue, others were reaching for their sunglasses.

The Southern Steel's new blue number also got the thumbs up, although with the Steel changing their strip four times in five years it would probably be more noteworthy if they didn't make any changes.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a3 at 31 Aug 2014 06:08:14 Processing Time: 981ms