The leadership at Northern Mystics is being questioned after the young Auckland side's disastrous showing at a preseason tournament in Melbourne at the weekend.
Having already lost the services of star defender Anna Harrison, who withdrew from the squad this month after announcing her pregnancy, the Mystics have been without their captain, Maria Tutaia, for a crucial chunk of the preseason as she holidayed in France.
The Auckland side lost all three of their fixtures at the weekend, including a 25-39 defeat at the hands of last year's wooden spooners, the Mainland Tactix.
With the Mystics trying to bed in an all-new midcourt and still developing defensive combinations after the loss of Harrison and key utility Charlotte Kight, the weekend's tournament was a good opportunity to develop their through-court links.
The untimely absence of Tutaia, along with injury to former Silver Fern midcourter Grace Rasmussen, meant Mystics newcomers Malia Paseka, Elisapeta Toeava, Lavinia Vaitohi, Jessica Bourke and Erikana Pederson experienced a baptism of fire in their first taste of ANZ Championship netball.
Mystics coach Ruth Aitken, who is herself in a caretaker role at the club with Debbie Fuller stepping aside because of family commitments, admitted it wasn't ideal for the team to be without their captain for their preseason fixtures.
Tutaia and the other Silver Ferns in the group had already missed two weeks of training in January and February to attend national training camps, leaving Aitken without consistency in her squad for the build-up.
Aitken said Tutaia had approval from the franchise to travel to France, where her rugby-playing boyfriend Roimata Hansell-Pune is based, but her leave was approved at a time when it was thought the tournament would be held over the first weekend of March.
"[The tournament dates] were changed quite late, so we were fine with [Tutaia] going. It is pretty challenging for her with her partner being based overseas, so it's a long time before she sees him again," Aitken said.
Leadership was always going to be a crucial area for the Mystics this year after the retirement of their inspirational captain and club stalwart Temepara Bailey (nee George) at the end of last season. That was compounded by the loss of experienced defenders Harrison and Kight, but Aitken said she was confident she still had enough leaders in her group.
"It's about players stepping up. We're really lucky we've got [Australian import] Julie Corletto in the defence end and while she is still getting used to everything she is a great leader in her own right. We've got Grace stepping up in the midcourt and with Maria in the forward court I think we've got good experience in there."
Provided Rasmussen's calf injury receives the all clear, Aitken will finally have her full group back together this week. With just four weeks until their season opener against early title favourites the Melbourne Vixens, the Mystics have their work cut out as they look to address the key areas where they were exposed over the weekend.
The biggest concern is their midcourt as Mystics management grapple with whether to play some of their more established players out of position, or throw their youngsters straight into the deep end. Aitken said the rookies in the team received a wake-up call in Melbourne.
"It was a big step up for them and they certainly know what sort of competition they're in now."
The two sides to miss the weekend's tournament in Melbourne - the Magic and Pulse - enjoyed a competitive hit-out against each other in New Plymouth on Saturday.
The defending champion Magic side had a 78-71 win over the Pulse, with both teams making liberal changes throughout the match, played over six 15-minute periods. With two Silver Ferns - Liana Leota and Joline Henry - still to join the Pulse line-up, Robyn Broughton's side look strong top-four contenders.
Netballers in pay battle
The Australian Diamonds are embroiled in a pay dispute with their national body, taking their fight all the way to government level.
Australia's netballers get little reward for their international commitments, receiving just a $200-a-day payment when on tour. That amounts to at most about $10,000 a year - less than the base-level contract for a member of the wider Silver Ferns squad.
As part of their new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Australian Netball Players Association wants the daily payment doubled, arguing the demands on players are greater than ever.
But with negotiations stalling, the players' association have appealed to Fair Work Australia.
Netball New Zealand chief executive Raelene Castle said with the sport having a much larger commercial profile here, the Silver Ferns are paid significantly more than their international rivals.
* Lost to West Coast Fever 24-45
* Lost to Mainland Tactix 25-39
* Lost to Melbourne Vixens 28-4.