Netball: Legend still strives for one last title

By Dana Johannsen

Retiring midcourter Temepara George is known for her ability to read the game three steps ahead. Picture / Richard Robinson
Retiring midcourter Temepara George is known for her ability to read the game three steps ahead. Picture / Richard Robinson

In the unprepossessing surrounds of a high-school gym on Auckland's North Shore, the career of a legend is drawing to a close.

The Northern Mystics' final court session of the week at Carmel College could possibly be captain Temepara George's last full on-court training run with her side.

But no one dare mention it.

"Bubby doesn't want us to talk about it," said shooter Cathrine Latu.

George has insisted her impending retirement not be the focus of the Mystics' transtasman league finals campaign.

Internally, the team are desperate to deliver their inspirational captain the fairytale ending to her career - an ANZ Championship title.

But hanging thick in the air is the unspoken knowledge George is playing on borrowed time. A loss to the Magic in Monday's preliminary final would mean the end of her career.

TO PREPARE her side for the aerial abilities of the Magic defenders in Monday night's playoff, Mystics coach Debbie Fuller has roped in some male players to help them train.

While the men are physically stronger and more athletic, they are no match for the wily midcourter.

George confounds the opposition defence by using ball speed and clever passing to put her shooters into the right space.

Like a conductor before an orchestra, George runs the play around the attack end, furiously pointing where her teammates should be passing. Or, when in possession of the ball herself, she directs the players into space with a jerk of the head and raising of the eyebrows.

When the attack end hits a flat note, George is the chief marshal on defence, racing back to rally the troops and keeping her eyes peeled for any loose ball she can pounce on.

GEORGE WAS the first player signed to the Mystics when the Auckland franchise came into being in late 2007.

The coach at the time, Yvonne Willering, said the athletic midcourter was at the top of her shopping list from the outset.

"Besides just being a quality, skilled player, she does get the best out of those around her, so yeah, she was certainly at the top of my list," said Willering.

The midcourt maestro has since gone on to play every quarter of the team's 69 games to date.

In her first season, she managed to play elite netball while also competing on television's Dancing With the Stars. George was crowned winner of the dancing show, but the Mystics failed horribly in their opening season, their star-studded team finishing seventh.

They fared worse the following year, finishing eighth with just three wins to their name. With a bunch of new recruits, the Auckland side showed strong improvement in 2010, but George's girls finished agonisingly short of the top four.

Last year came the breakthrough. The Mystics finally made it into the playoffs and surprised many by advancing all the way to the grand final, where they were scorched by the Queensland Firebirds.

George is desperate to go one better this season and capture the title that has eluded her in her career.

"This year has to be our year," she said emphatically at the beginning of the season.

THAT SENSE of urgency has been translated to the training court this week.

"Give it to her!" George shouts at fellow midcourter Jade Clarke after she hesitated on the delivery of her pass into the shooting circle, giving the defence the opportunity to come through and steal the ball.

"Did you see Maria standing by herself?" George questions the English import as the pair sprint back to get on defence.

A couple of possessions later and Clarke delivers a brilliant bullet pass that splits the defenders and finds Latu under the goal.

"Yes, Jade!" George claps, satisfied. For the time being.

Her ire is raised a short time later when Charlotte Knight biffs the ball out the back of the court from the transverse line. This time George needn't say anything. She glares at the defender, who raises her hand and gives an apologetic nod, resolving to work extra hard toget the ball back.

Of course, George is sometimes guilty of making errors herself. A creative playmaker, there are times when her trickery fools even her own teammates.

But any errant pass is greeted with a grimace, and a quick summation of what went wrong.

"It was going to where you came from," she explains to Latu, after a miscommunication with her shooter.

At the next break in play she takes Latu aside for the full post mortem, dissecting any errors at length. This is where you see George at her demonstrative best, using her hands and body movement to illustrate her point.

LATU WAS just 18 when she was first teamed up with George on the netball court.

The 1.89m shooter had been plucked from Massey High School's premier team to play for the Northern Force in the old domestic league.

Captaining that side was George, who the previous year had won her way into the hearts of New Zealanders with her match-winning heroics in the 2003 world championship final.

Latu recalls being awestruck by the midcourt star's knowledge of the game, and her innate ability to see the play happen before it unfolds and put herself in the right place.

"She sees the game better than any other player. I remember when I first started thinking, 'Man, how does she read the game three or four steps ahead of the play'."

The awe is still there, but the puzzlement is not. "She has this skill and art that can't be taught," Latu says simply.

WHILE HER court sense remains as sharp, if not sharper, than ever, George's body is feeling the effects of her long, storied career, which has spanned 16 years and 89 tests.

She had ankle surgery in late 2010 but it never healed properly. Her workload has been carefully managed this season to ensure she is right for each game, but it's taking longer and longer for her to recover from the intense matches.

It's evident in training that George is battling pain. After coming off second-best from a strong aerial challenge she limps away, not bothering to retreat on defence.

But the Mystics force an error from the opposition almost immediately and the ball swings back down the court.

"Who's there?" screams Fuller.

George suddenly fixes her attention back on the play and, just like that, she is there.

But next year, she won't be.

- NZ Herald

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