Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: Ready for another biggest night

Khao Watts has been in consistently good form for the Magic, but she's not thinking about the play-offs. Photo / Getty Images.
Khao Watts has been in consistently good form for the Magic, but she's not thinking about the play-offs. Photo / Getty Images.

The Magic's Monday night clash with the Firebirds will be the biggest game of Khao Watts' career. But that's nothing new - for the past nine weeks, every game has been the biggest match of her career.

Before she joined the Magic this season, the Australian State League was as big as it had been for the 22-year-old.

She dreamed of playing in the transtasman league, but her way in to the competition came through unexpected means when she was offered the import spot on the Waikato-Bay of Plenty side's roster.

It was a huge opportunity for the South Australian, but also a huge challenge. Watts had to adjust her game to the New Zealand style of play, make the step up to a professional environment, slot in to a line-up laden with Silver Ferns and take on some of the world's best players week in, week out.

Her task became all the more daunting when, four rounds in, the Magic found themselves dead last.

They were facing the prospect of playing for their lives every week.

The seasoned internationals in the team - Irene van Dyk, Laura Langman, Casey Williams and Leana de Bruin - were used to performing in such pressure-fuelled situations. But for the rookie midcourter it has been an entirely new experience.

With coach Noeline Taurua drumming in to the team the importance of individual accountability, there was nowhere for Watts to hide - and she responded well.

The versatile midcourter has grown in to her role as a specialist wing attack, forming a solid combination with Langman and impressing with her strong feeding in to the circle, low error rate and composure.

While it was a lot of pressure for her initially, Watts said it soon became the norm.

"Since round four we've needed to win every game, so I think I've got used to must-win games. [That pressure] just seems kind of normal," said Watts.

But her success at the franchise begs the question - did the Magic stumble upon a diamond in the rough? Or are New Zealand's midcourt stocks that poor at the moment that any serviceable State League player in Australia can cross the Tasman and make a big impact? Taurua believes Watts is a shining jewel.

The Magic coach has been hugely impressed with the way Watts has risen to every challenge she has been set, and said her skillset, work ethic and drive set her apart from other players.

"She is very consistent from week to week. I think with every game she has grown and developed in that role and she is doing some really great stuff for us," said Taurua.

"She's got sound judgment and is patient enough to go back and re-set when things aren't on, but by the same token she has the confidence to let the ball in to the circle when she sees it is on."

Watts will need to continue to show the same level of consistency if her side are to maintain their winning form through the play-offs. But the young midcourter isn't thinking about playing in the ANZ Championship finals yet.

"If I start thinking about playing in playoffs, I don't know what my nerves will do. So I'm just trying not get too ahead of myself," she said.

While it would take a series of very unlikely events for the Magic to miss a playoffs spot now, they are approaching Monday night's final round clash against the Queensland Firebirds as a must-win.

In many ways it is. The Magic have built momentum over the past nine weeks, a loss now would take a chink out their hardened edge they have developed in their unlikely play-offs run.

They've have also built a strong rivalry with the Firebirds, which is a polite way of saying the two sides hate each other.

The Firebirds upstaged the Magic in Rotorua the last time the two sides met on this side of the Tasman, in 2010.

- NZ Herald

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