Netball: And then there were four...

By Dana Johannsen

Maria Tutaia of the Mystics. Photo / Getty Images.
Maria Tutaia of the Mystics. Photo / Getty Images.

The ANZ Championship playoffs begin on Sunday and unlike last year when the Queensland Firebirds were dominant, there does not appear to be a clearcut favourite.

Each team, from the first placed Vixens to the fourth-placed Thunderbirds, has a chance of lifting the trophy.

And there has never been a better opportunity for New Zealand's Mystics and the Magic to break the Australian stranglehold on the competition.

Each team has another thing in common - one player whose form will determine the fate of her side's title chances.

Madison Browne
Melbourne Vixens

Of the four title contenders, the Vixens have the most unbalanced line-up. So it is somewhat of a surprise that the Melbourne side have been so successful this season.

The Vixens' strength is undoubtedly their defence end, with the trio of Geva Mentor, Bianca Chatfield and Julie Corletto probably the most effective back three combination in the league.

But all the turnovers they create mean nothing if they can't capitalise on them at the other end of the court. It is livewire midcourter Madison Browne who has largely held the attack end together. The 1.68m wing attack is the workhorse in the team, leading the league - by a long way - in centre pass receives and goal assists.

With brilliant speed and timing, Browne's ability to connect to her shooters has assisted an inexperienced Vixens front line. The energetic midcourter's ability to continue getting good quality ball in to her shooters will be crucial to the Melbourne side's title charge.

She is tipped as the next Australian wing attack, and a strong showing over the finals series could also boost Browne's chances of cementing her place in the Diamonds' starting line.

Maria Tutaia
Northern Mystics

It may have been mentioned just a few times before, but Maria Tutaia is a bit of an enigma.

The Mystics shooter is a potential match winner - and a potential coach killer.

At the beginning of the season Tutaia told the Herald of her struggles for consistency - or as she explained it, "sometimes my mind drifts off to Samoa". Those trips have been less frequent this season - she looks fitter, her movement strong and direct and, as always, her long-range shooting abilities are exceptional.

But there remain times when the 25-year-old doesn't seem entirely present.

There have been games when she has started out shooting at 100 per cent for the first quarter, then in the following period she'll drop to the 50s.

At times it is just a simple lack of urgency to her play, at others it is out-and-out brain fades.

The success of the Mystics' finals campaign relies on Tutaia not taking any Pacific pauses.

When she is in the zone, coolly slotting long bombs with ridiculous ease, you can almost sense the helplessness from the opposition.

In a finals situation, Tutaia's hot hand could prove the Mystics' winning hand.

Casey Williams
Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic

In top form, Williams is the best defender in the world.

Trouble is, the Silver Ferns captain has taken some time to regain her spark after battling back from ankle surgery in the off-season. But it has long been said that Williams is the type of player who tends to build in to the season, getting better with every game.

If the theory is correct, then on the evidence of her last two performances against the Thunderbirds and Firebirds, she is in for a big finals series.

And the Magic need their star defender to be at her intimidating, dominant, ball-snaffling best.

A team that plays on emotion, the Magic feed off Williams' passion and intensity, and her aerial heroics often help to fire the team up.

But fitness remains a concern for the stopper. Because of her long-standing ankle and knee problems, Williams' recovery needs to be closely monitored, her workload carefully managed.

The Magic will be praying to the fairy folk that Williams' precious pins will hold up in what could be a gruelling finals campaign.

Carla Borrego
Adelaide Thunderbirds

One of the most dominant shooters in the league, Thunderbirds import Carla Borrego is also the most expensive (as in coughing up the most ball, although she would probably get up there in dollar terms as well).

The former Jamaican international is second on the league's scoring list, shooting an average of 32 goals a game. Her season tally of 425 goals is just one less than the Firebirds' 1.96m shooting machine Romelda Aiken.

But she is unrivalled at the top of the competition's turnover count, committing 70 turnovers this season - 17 more than any other player.

The Thunderbirds will need Borrego to tidy up in this area if the girls in pink are to become the first side to win two ANZ Championship crowns.

A huge scoring threat, Borrego has shown that when she is assertive in the shooting circle, holding her space well and commanding the ball, she can be virtually unstoppable.

- NZ Herald

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