Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Netball: A good problem like Maria

Maria Tutaia. Photo / Getty Images
Maria Tutaia. Photo / Getty Images

It remains one of the enduring questions of New Zealand netball - how to get the best out of Maria Tutaia?

Her talent is unquestioned. On form she is one of the best pure shooters in the sport.

As the Mystics head into the final stretch of the ANZ Championship campaign, starting with a season-defining game against the Magic today, Tutaia looms as the X factor for the Auckland side.

When she's on target, her ability to shoot from distance is unrivalled across the competition and creates a nightmare for defenders.

Her consistency has improved over the years - but she admits she can't find the week-in, week-out performance craved by every top sportsperson.

"In terms of consistency I still haven't nailed it," says Tutaia, "but it has been the story of my career. I expect to play the perfect game every week but it doesn't always happen.

"Even this year has been a bit up and down for me."

In her second season at the helm, Mystics coach Debbie Fuller remains slightly mystified by her star goal attack.

"She is still a bit of an enigma for me," laughs Fuller. "but overall it is a positive. She has progressed a lot in the last few years and shown real maturity.

"She is quite independent in her thinking and is much better at handling the constant flow of advice and criticism that comes her way."

Tutaia says she prepares exactly the same way for every game, whether it is a world championship final or a pre-season warm-up. Like most athletes, Tutaia craves those times when she is in the zone. She doesn't notice the crowd, can't see the defender's hand hovering over her or team-mate Cathrine Latu across the circle. She has a total focus on ball and hoop.

"Sometimes you go into games and everything feels great," says Tutaia. "I say to myself - right, this is kill time. You feel good and you want to dominate the ball, your opponent and everything on the court."

Tutaia has had those moments this year, especially against the Magic in round two, the Vixens and the Steel last week.

Her coach knows it's coming. "Usually I can see it in the training a few days before the game," says Fuller, "and that goes for all of my players. We train against the men and they are very physical; if they can't handle it in training, they may not perform in the games."

Tutaia performs a vital role. On various occasions in 2012 Latu has been shut down, leaving the goal attack as the option. Also, Latu usually won't shoot unless she is close to the post, meaning Tutaia becomes the long-range choice.

But it would be simplistic just to focus on Tutaia's shooting arsenal. This year she is more of an all-round player - she's first call for the centre pass, plays a vital role on first and second phase ball, reads play better as it comes through court and has become a much more effective defender.

In today's game there's a simple equation for Tutaia and Latu - dominate or be dominated. The twin towers of Casey Williams and Leana de Bruin have hit form in the last few weeks after a slow start to the season. They are superb athletes and - at 1.88m and 1.90m respectively - as intimidating as they come.

"There will be nothing on a silver platter [today]", says Tutaia. "We need to do the basics very well. [Williams and de Bruin] love the high ball and those superstar intercepts. Delivery needs to be short, flat and sharp [as those] tall girls don't like to get low."

"They are a great combination," says Fuller, who was reluctant to give away how they plan to counter the pair. "They like to hunt the ball. We need to play to our strengths and use the strength of Cathrine Latu."

Williams is a constant threat. Her range of movement is almost unique among defenders - whether it is bounding forward, leaping backwards or soaring sideways - and she has an unparalleled ability to cover the court.

Meanwhile, Fuller waits for a true 60-minute performance from her team - "I'd love to see that" as the futures of the New Zealand's two leading franchises will be decided out West. If the Magic lose their finals hopes are virtually over. If the Mystics fail to win their dreams of top spot - and all the advantages that go with it - are almost certainly gone.

"We want to establish that we are out to win the championship," says Tutaia. "Sure, it would be good if the Magic can make the final four - but not at our expense."

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 22 Aug 2014 18:27:07 Processing Time: 552ms