Michael Burgess

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

Netball: How Magic broke the spell

Khao Watts (left) and Irene van Dyk (right) of the Magic in action. Photo / Getty Images
Khao Watts (left) and Irene van Dyk (right) of the Magic in action. Photo / Getty Images

From muddled to magical. In terms of sporting turnarounds, the Magic renaissance has been one of the biggest in recent memory and was triggered by heartfelt, 'blood on the floor' meetings during their lowest point.

Bottom of the table after four rounds, they have won eight consecutive matches and could finish as high as second if results fall their way this weekend.

Senior players Irene van Dyk and Laura Langman have led the recovery with lethal offensive work. After a slow start, the partnership of Casey Williams and Leana de Bruin has clicked to become one of the best defensive duos in the league.

Coach Noeline Taurua says it took major soul-searching, brutal honesty and hard work to recover from an abysmal start which might have been down to a touch of complacency.

The Magic also decided to bring in a sports psychologist before the campaign to overhaul their preparation routines and some players might have struggled to adapt.

"We never gave up on ourselves," Taurua told the Herald on Sunday. "We kept believing - even if many others didn't. Our pride was hurt and we had nowhere else to go. We had to respond."

After consecutive defeats against the Steel, Mystics, Swifts and Vixens, the Magic realised they were on the edge and one more loss could be terminal. A series of in-house meetings were called and nothing was held back.

"It was very tense at times," remembers Taurua, "but we had to get rid of all the crap. It was about being open and honest and everybody had their say. There was some intense talking. It made us accountable - we had to live by the words we had down on paper."

Reflecting now, Taurua admits that there may have been a degree of complacency as her team started the season. After a strong pre-season, they were strangely flat and inaccurate once the real business began.

"Maybe we just thought it would happen and all we had to was roll up and play," says Taurua, "and it showed out on court.

"But there was enough evidence in the Vixens game to show we were improving, even though we had lost again."

Adds Magic midcourter Khao Watts: "We settled, got into our structures and began to do what we do well. "Though we knew what was at stake, we seemed to relax more out on court."

After that match in Melbourne, they haven't looked back. Their first seven wins came against teams in the bottom four, which meant it was hard to measure their progress; were they back to their best, or just bullies beating up on the minnows?

Answers have come over the past fortnight, with a clinical display against the Mystics followed by a thumping of the Thunderbirds. The Magic, perennial competition favourites and two-time finalists, have yet to shake their bridesmaids tag but this could be their year.

Van Dyk is as irre-pressible as ever and forms a strong partnership with Juli-anna Naoupu, who is playing to her undoubted potential. Langman was in stunning form last week, leaving her highly rated opposites Natalie von Bertouch and Renae Hallinan chasing shadows, while Watts has been a revelation at wing attack and has eased pressure on the Silver Ferns vice-captain.

Defensively Williams and de Bruin took time to gel but recent displays have been formidable; they reduced Cathrine Latu to a spectator at times (she shot just 18 goals, down on her season average of 26) and nullified Adelaide's Carla Borrego, one of the best attackers in the game.

Crucially, the Magic also have momentum while other teams have been notably inconsistent.

"In previous years, we have coughed and spluttered our way into the playoffs and been a bit up and down," says Taurua. "We were never too sure who was going to show up on the day. This year, we have a more clinical approach to the game."

But can the Magic go all the way and finally bring the ANZ Championship to these shores?

"I believe we can," says Taurua. "Mentally we are much tougher and harder, and after those losses, we have had to be able to cope under pressure every week. Obviously if we don't perform, any team can beat us on a given day - but we can win this."

- Herald on Sunday

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