Netball: Flatmates with a bond

By Suzanne McFadden

Megan Hutton moved out of Jenny Ferguson's flat last week. It was nothing Ferguson had said.

It was just one more fragment in the congenial break-up of the Sting's rock-solid defence.

Tonight's National Bank Cup final will be the last time Ferguson and Hutton take the court together - for a while, if ever.

Hutton, the Sting's gritty goal keep, is heading to England to join her sisters on an OE. Ferguson, the Sting's captain and goal defence, is still considering whether to play in next year's Tasman Trophy and juggle her full-time physiotherapist job.

It's going to be a tough split-up for the Sting's defenders, who've played netball together for five seasons, who've played basketball alongside each other for Southland, and who've flatted together for the past 2 1/2 years.

And it will be yet another spur for the Sting to beat the Force and take home the silverware they believe is rightly theirs, to keep for eternity.

Ferguson and, in particular Hutton, have had a rewarding season with the Sting this far. Over summer, Hutton, 31, sharpened her fitness and lost weight to become quicker and more incisive on court.

It changed the dynamic between the two defenders, but eventually for the better.

"We naturally have a good understanding after five years on court together. It makes it easier," Ferguson says. "And it's got better as the season has gone on. With Megan playing slightly differently now, it has taken us a little while to get used to each other.

"There are still things we could develop - we need to mix it up more. We can't always space mark, sometimes we have to mark one-on-one. That's something we've worked on this week."

Ferguson supported Hutton through her intense workout during the off-season, motivated by the knowledge it would be her last in Southland.

She worked with the team's nutritionist and fitness experts, and threw herself into power and agility work in the gym.

"We all went down to the beach in summer, and did the great outdoor tracks we have down here. It was pretty intense," Ferguson says.

For Hutton it was part of a comeback from spending months in a brace after a knee injury - described by physio Ferguson as "horrific" - that she suffered during the Sting's 2005 season. That was a difficult season for both players - Ferguson's father died just before the NBC final, where the Sting lost to the Magic, breaking their six-year winning streak.

Neither player is a Southlander - Hutton was born and raised in Christchurch; Ferguson in the little Central Otago town of Miller's Flat on the banks of the Clutha River. But both now feel like Invercargill is home.

Ferguson graduated as a physio in 2000 and worked at Dunedin Hospital, but started travelling to Invercargill to play for the Sting in 2003. She became a full-time Southlander two years later.

A former New Zealand A squad member, Ferguson, 28, is uncertain where her netball future lies.

"The Tasman Trophy sounds pretty exciting - when there's a new competition, you feel like you've got to be involved. But it's still semi-professional. There's no way you can trip over to Australia every second week and maintain a fulltime job," she says.

"I've got to get through this week before I can think about the future."

She admits it is a big ask to beat the Force at home after losing to them twice this season.

"They had a very smart game plan. And like the Magic, the Force have several 'big game' players who rise to the occasion," Ferguson says.

"We have to revisit what we did last Friday night, against the Magic, and do what we do well.

"We had great senior players who really stood up to the challenge - Adine [Wilson], Donna [Wilkins] and Megan."

It was Hutton and then Ferguson whose intercepts in the final two minutes helped clinch the Sting's 10th successive final slot. "My intercept was a long time coming - I waited all game for that," Ferguson laughs.

It could yet turn out to be the perfect year for Ferguson to be the captain of the Sting, a role she took over this season from former Silver Ferns captain Lesley Rumball. Having the current New Zealand captain in the side has helped her get to grips with the job, and she's learned to be more organised.

"I would absolutely love to be holding that cup up at the end of the game," she says.

"The longer you play for the Sting, the longer you live in Invercargill, the more you realise how much it means to the community.

"It's the end of an era, and we've got to appreciate what's gone on for the past decade."

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