Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Netball: Teams about to play their trump cards

Mystics' Kayla Cullen will go head to head with fellow rookie of the year Julianna Naoupu tonight. Photo / Getty Images
Mystics' Kayla Cullen will go head to head with fellow rookie of the year Julianna Naoupu tonight. Photo / Getty Images

One side is desperate to send its long-serving captain out on a high; the other is chasing redemption after four seasons of transtasman league disappointment.

If tonight's ANZ Championship preliminary final between the Northern Mystics and Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic were to be decided on desire alone, the two sides could not be separated. Having fought their way back from a near-terminal 0-4 start to their campaign, there is a strong resolve in the Magic camp that their hard work does not amount to nothing.

The Mystics seem to have just scraped by on many occasions this season, but they have also demonstrated a knack of pulling out the big performances when they are needed. And their motivation to do so tonight is obvious. It will be captain Temepara George's last home game, and if her side lose, her last game ever.

But Mystics coach Debbie Fuller said as much as playoffs netball is about passion, hunger and desperation, it is how the respective teams channel their emotions tonight that will decide the game.

"For us it is about performance, we have got to perform," said Fuller. "We've got so much character and determination in this team to be better, and that's what I want to see from them - that they can put it together for 60 minutes because we have been guilty of slipping up in quarters and halves in games."

The Mystics and Magic have one of the more intriguing rivalries in the league, with the two sides well-versed in each other's individuals strengths.

Between the two line-ups there are 11 members of the New Zealand squad, as well as former Fern George.

Even the Mystics import, English international Jade Clarke, has intimate knowledge of the Magic camp, having joined the Waikato/Bay of Plenty team as injury cover shortly before their 2010 playoffs run.

The strong links between each of the teams has created some fascinating match-ups: Rookie of the year nominees Kayla Cullen and Julianna Naoupu will go head-to-head; Ferns captain Casey Williams will take on the mercurial Maria Tutaia; and Anna Harrison, the most talked-about defender this year, will take on the most talked-about shooter, Irene van Dyk.

The intense rivalry has only really developed over the past couple of seasons. Before that the under-achieving Mystics rarely managed even to trouble the Magic. The Auckland side finally broke their drought with a one-goal win over Magic in their second round robin match-up last season, and followed that up with another tight victory at the identical crunch stage last year.

This year they are one game apiece, with the resurgent Magic getting the wood over their northern rivals in their most recent meeting a month ago.

It was that match that gave the first real glimpse of the new hard-edged attitude of Noeline Taurua's side.

They followed up their win over the Mystics with convincing demolitions of the Adelaide Thunderbirds and Queensland Firebirds to blitz their way into the playoffs and establish themselves as a genuine title contenders.

Taurua said opening the season with a four-game losing streak forced the Magic to address their shortcomings from the outset, rather than situations that have developed in the past where they've had their weaknesses exposed later in the season and been forced to figure it out then.

"In the bigger picture all these games have been beneficial to us because it's helped us handle different situations that are thrown out. But it's also us being in the right mindset that it's not going to come easily and that you've got to make it happen. The players have learnt that and it's quite powerful."

Powerful enough to beat a Mystics side determined to put in a performance worthy of sending off their much respected leader? It's too close to call.

ROAD TO FINAL

ANZ Championship - preliminary final
Northern Mystics v Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic
Tonight, 7.45pm, Trusts Stadium
Live on Sky Sport 1
*The winner will face the Melbourne Vixens in next week's grand final.

Head-to-head

Played 10
Magic 7
Mystics 3

Previous five meetings

Round 12 (2012) Magic 48-46 Mystics
Round 2 (2012) Mystics 47-41 Magic
Preliminary final (2011) Mystics 43-42 Magic
Round 5 (2011) Mystics 47-46 Magic
Round 3 (2011) Magic 45-39 Mystics.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 23 Nov 2014 14:00:34 Processing Time: 370ms