Michael Burgess

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

Netball: Duo's final showdown

Temepara George (left) and Laura Langman have been fierce but friendly rivals on the court. Photo / Getty Images
Temepara George (left) and Laura Langman have been fierce but friendly rivals on the court. Photo / Getty Images

In sport, often a player's true greatness can be defined by their biggest rival. Roger Federer was taken to new heights by Rafa Nadal, Richie McCaw by David Pocock and recently Benji Marshall by Shaun Johnson.

The netball equivalent might be Temepara George and Laura Langman, two of the best players of their generation who have pushed each other to new levels.

Barring a sudden change of heart by the retiring George, tomorrow night's ANZ Championship preliminary final will be the last time we see these two on the same court.

It has been a fierce though friendly rivalry, accentuated by the nature of netball. In many other team sports (football, league, rugby, hockey), you may not come into contact with your opposite number that often during a match; as opposing centres, George and Langman will be in each other's pocket for the entirety of tomorrow's game, which makes direct comparisons easier.

"In a lot of ways, they are very similar," says Maria Tutaia, who has played with both players for the Magic, Mystics and Silver Ferns.

"They are both great workers and exceptional feeders. I guess Temepara can be more off the cuff, more unpredictable, whereas Laura tends to play more of a structured game."

"They are comparable but different," says Magic coach Noeline Taurua. "Temepara has an innate natural style and a unique range of attacking plays but Laura is getting there in terms of attacking skills. I always feel that midcourters don't fully mature until their late 20s or early 30s and in that way Laura is already ahead of her time - we haven't seen the best of her yet."

Both players were precocious talents. George was in the Silver Ferns squad in 1996 as a 19-year-old and, after time off to have children, made her full debut in June 2000.

Mystics coach Debbie Fuller has vivid memories of George's international introduction, as a Ferns team-mate on the tour of Australia.

"She had been carving up defenders in our domestic competition," says Fuller, "and she did it all with a smile. She was a cheeky little midcourter and extremely confident from a young age. I remember thinking 'who is this young so-and-so who is making me look bad at training?"'

Langman was drafted into the Magic environment while still a schoolgirl in 2003 and was in the wider Ferns squad by the end of that season.

"When she was 16 and in the Magic development squad, we needed extras for a training session one day," remembers Taurua. "I put her on Jenny-May Coffin, who was then in her prime. She didn't let Jenny-May go at all and didn't care who she was; she was confident and just focused on the ball and the play."

"I saw Laura for the first time at a national tournament in the early 2000s," says Fuller. "She was up against Anna Stanley and was unrelenting on a current Fern. I remember thinking 'here is another top midcourter'. It's always a good indicator, when a young upstart can take on a senior player and not be fazed."

George and Langman first crossed paths in the National Bank Cup: "From memory, we probably got whipped and I was taken to school," laughs Langman. "After that, I knew if I wanted to have any chances with the Ferns, I would need to improve a lot. She was - and still is - the complete package and you need to have the complete game to take her on."

Langman was a wing defence when she came into the national side (with George as centre) and says it was a "sublime experience".

"You just needed to look after your end and she did the rest," says Langman. "She would run the show. I'm still a huge fan and admirer of Bubs [George's nickname]. There have not been many players as good as her at getting free when they have a marker right on them."

Langman inherited George's Ferns 'C' bib in 2007 and has never relinquished it, with the duo forming a formidable centre/wing attack combination at international level when George returned in 2009. They have played 51 tests together for the Ferns and neither has missed a single quarter of action since the ANZ Championship began in 2008.

Langman and the Magic have dominated the local derby, with seven wins in 10 games but an ANZ Championship trophy remains a glaring absence from both CVs.

- Herald on Sunday

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