Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana Johannsen: It's a topsy-turvy transtasman start

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OUT OF PLAY: Irene Van Dyk's shooting skills aren't getting a chance as the Magic's shaky midcourt skills starve her of ball; her team is still without a win two rounds in. Photo / Mark McKeown
OUT OF PLAY: Irene Van Dyk's shooting skills aren't getting a chance as the Magic's shaky midcourt skills starve her of ball; her team is still without a win two rounds in. Photo / Mark McKeown

Talk of champions' curse as former winners fail to thrive while league weeds sprout promising moves.

Just when the transtasman league was in danger of becoming staid and predictable five seasons in, the opening two rounds of the 2012 competition threw up some curious results.

Three of the four sides that made last year's play-offs - the Firebirds, Swifts and Magic - are without a win after two rounds.

While the heavyweights have faltered, some of the league's perennial underachievers have shown huge promise in the early rounds.

The Central Pulse were impressive in their win over the Southern Steel - a side also expected to struggle this year until they dispatched the Magic in their opening round meeting.

Then the Canterbury Tactix, wooden spooners for the past two seasons, edged out the New South Wales Swifts in Christchurch on Monday night to record their first win against an Australian side in three years.

Yes, it is early days yet for both teams, but it certainly bodes well for the health of the competition.

There are serious questions over the Magic franchise, however, after the Waikato/Bay of Plenty side opened the season with two losses.

An ill-functioning midcourt that is struggling to provide good quality ball to their key strike-weapon, Irene van Dyk, and poor transitional play have been blamed for the Magic's early season struggles.

But there appear to be wider problems at the franchise. Financial difficulties have put the squeeze on their support staff and the Magic no longer have a fulltime assistant coach. Instead, Waikato coach Rebecca Gabel is courtside for the Hamilton home games, while Bay of Plenty's Mary-Jane Araroa takes the Rotorua and Tauranga matches.

As the Magic trains a week about in Te Awamutu and Tauranga, the assistants attend only the trainings in their home province. But their inclusion in the set-up appears to be more in an observation-type role and to satisfy a Netball New Zealand edict that all Kiwi franchises must have an assistant coach. The policy was put in place to improve the development pathways for coaches.

The team are also travelling with only 10 players in an effort to reduce costs and create more competition among the bench players.

With two tough road trips coming up against the NSW Swifts and Melbourne Vixens, the Magic's assignment isn't going to get any easier.

The Swifts, also without a win this season, are desperate to open their account for 2012 this weekend, as are the Queensland Firebirds, who face the Pulse in Brisbane on Sunday.

While the Firebirds will be favoured to beat the Pulse this weekend, even after their indifferent start to the season, the early hiccup from the defending champions has made a mockery of pre-season predictions the Firebirds would be untouchable again in 2012.

Some have suggested the Firebirds' failure to launch is the curse of the premiers rearing its head again.

The first three ANZ champions (Swifts 2008, Vixens 2009, and Thunderbirds 2010) all failed to make the finals in the year after their premiership wins.

Each of those teams lost key personnel in intervening years, but that's not the case for the Firebirds.

They have kept the starting seven that blitzed the Mystics in last year's final, while captain Lauren Nourse has returned from a knee reconstruction. The loss of versatile defender Clare McMeniman has left the Firebirds defence line a little exposed.

But it's the Queensland side's much-vaunted attack line that is of biggest concern.

Australian goal attack Natalie Medhurst has had an extremely slow start to the season, shooting just 23 goals over two matches.

This has put star shooter Romelda Aiken, who feeds off the confidence of other players, under huge pressure. The Jamaican's accuracy rate has dropped to just over 80 per cent, while she leads the league in turnovers.

Aiken has always shot in the low to mid-80s, but her strength was in her ability to get her own rebounds.

The league's most prolific rebounder last year - collecting 20 more rebounds than any other player over the season, Aiken has picked up just four rebounds in two games.

After two weeks of surprise results, week 3 may just confirm the relative strengths of each of the sides.

- NZ Herald

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Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana has more than a decade's experience in sports journalism, joining the Herald in 2007 following stints with TVNZ and RadioSport. Over that time Dana has covered several major events including the 2011 Netball World Cup in Singapore, 2011 Rugby World Cup, 2012-13 Volvo Ocean Race, and the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco. A multi-award winning journalist, Dana was named New Zealand Sports Journalist of the Year in 2012 after scooping both the news and feature categories at the TP McLean Awards. The previous year she picked up the prize for best news break. She was also an inaugural recipient of the Sir John Wells scholarship at the 2009 NZSJA awards. Dana also writes a weekly sports column for the NZ Herald.

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