You could say the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic are wrestling with the new netball season. They have enlisted New Zealand national wrestling coach Mark Grayling to hold duels and drills to strengthen the ANZ defending champions on the ground - as opposed to their more normal environment in the air.
While Casey Kopua (nee Williams), Laura Langman and Irene van Dyk facing off on the wrestling mat is unusual, it is partly a nod to the increasing physicality of the sport and coach Noeline Taurua's way of staying one step ahead.
"We are always looking at ways to improve our training so we put ourselves under pressure and we can execute," says Taurua. "I think it's fun - I don't know if the players think it's fun, but I do - I love it."
Taurua wants the players to be comfortable with being on the ground as part of a new strategy: "We are looking for a different type of game this year. We are very good up in the air but we also need to be comfortable playing a lot of low ball and being on the ground. It tests your ability to get knocked and get straight up and uses a lot of core stability.
It is also to do with energy; being able to foot it with the opposition, being able to eyeball them back and being in a dominant stance."
Taurua knows it will raise a few eyebrows but is happy to experiment - and Grayling's wrestling club is five minutes away from the Magic's Tauranga training base.
"It's all testing at the moment - seeing how relevant it is to netball. Time will tell," says Taurua. "It is about getting the technique right from the start and then trying to adapt that into netball specifics."
"I was one of the ones who was really apprehensive about it to be honest but [the wrestlers] are actually quite amazing," says Magic captain Laura Langman. "It's been great to learn little tricks. They have phenomenal core strength - it's about using your body and your size to benefit yourself; it's been a pleasant surprise."
They have undertaken many drills, including one-on-one wrestling duels where they have to push their opponents out of a 2m x 2m square.
"Obviously it's not UFC or anything," laughs Langman, "and you may not have a lot of weight behind you but it comes down to technique and how you use your body. That's been quite good in terms of defence, in how we take hits, and it gets the aggression levels up. Elias [Shadrock] is extremely good - you don't really want to wrestle on a little mat with her but everyone has done well. It's certainly different, and you have to get used to having people in your personal space, but I think Mark was quite impressed."
"We wanted to take them out of their comfort zones," says Grayling, who has previously worked with Bay of Plenty rugby and the All Black Sevens. "Some of them hated it at first but they have made a lot of progress, especially considering some were expecting to see a ring with ropes around it - that was their knowledge of wrestling."
Grayling says the powerful Langman is "pretty formidable" but has also been impressed with the attitude of beanpoles such as Kopua (1.88m), Van Dyk (1.90m) and Leana de Bruin (1.90m).
"It's much harder for the taller players - especially with all the drills that involve going to ground and springing to your feet," says Grayling. "I have been impressed with how tough they are. They didn't hold back and don't mind someone right in their face. Their attitude towards trying something different has been quite incredible."
As well as standard duels, the team have practised 'disorientation' drills. They involve being crouched on the ground and having to spin right and left and then spring to their feet to catch or throw a pass. Grayling estimates that, across a two-hour session, the players have had to drop to their feet and back again a gut-busting 300-400 times.
"They are spending a lot of time in the crouch position," adds Grayling. "It relates to netball when they go to ground or need to bend to pick up the ball."
"If you fall over, you want to be able to get up and recover quickly so teams don't get easy passes," says Langman. "It sounds quite trivial but it's the two per cent, it's that one pass that might change a game."
There is an unusual jinx in the ANZ Championship - no defending champion has made the final four - but things seem on track for the Magic.
"We are aware of it," says Langman. "Obviously we hope it doesn't happen to us but, like last year, we are going to take things week to week."
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