Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Top ten netball features: Oz shadow hung over New Zealand

Australian players celebrate victory over New Zealand during the final. Photo / Getty Images
Australian players celebrate victory over New Zealand during the final. Photo / Getty Images

Fine forecast

Asked before the ANZ Championship season how the Mystics could morph from pretenders to contenders, new coach Debbie Fuller said that developing genuine mental toughness was the key for her side.

It was non-negotiable.

The team had a 'truth session' before the start of the campaign where they were challenged on the existing perception of them as perennial under-achievers. The players bought into it and results started to come.

There was a down-to-the-wire win over the Magic, then an historic first victory in Australia over the Fever.

Making the playoffs for the first time, the Mystics showed their increased fortitude with successive triumphs in Hamilton and Sydney before falling to the irrepressible Firebirds.

The Latu letdown

The Cathrine Latu false start will go down as one of the strangest episodes in New Zealand sport.

After fighting behind the scenes for months to fast track Latu's selection into the Ferns, Netball New Zealand then went public by taking the case to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Claiming that they had a precedent, NNZ were confident and Latu was picked in the national side, only to be withdrawn a few days later when the case was dismissed due to an unusual technicality.

It was a poorly judged, poorly handled situation that put New Zealand offside with the international netball community and the biggest loser was Latu.

De Bruin dazzles

After an average 2010, the rebirth of Leana de Bruin was one of the feel-good stories of this year.

Playing in a struggling Steel side, de Bruin shone. She was fourth best in intercepts, top in deflections and grabbed 36 rebounds to dominate the defensive statistics.

The 34-year-old was named joint ANZ Championship MVP (alongside Natalie Medhurst) and took that form into the international arena.

She kept Katrina Grant out of the side in Singapore and anchored the defence at the end of the year when both Grant and Casey Williams were unavailable through injury.

Ruth retires

After a decade in charge, Ruth Aitken's decision to retire was not wholly unexpected but there was a sense, if she had decided to stay on, that would have been welcomed as well. She leaves a wonderful legacy, albeit with a couple of question marks.

Under her watch New Zealand began to compete with Australia in every match and enjoyed periods (2002-04, 2005-06) of real dominance.

There was also the unforgettable double Commonwealth Games triumphs in 2006 and 2010 and the development of talent such as Laura Langman, Williams and Maria Tutaia. She leaves a talented, if slightly ageing squad, and the inability to find and groom a successor to Irene van Dyk is a black mark.

While she was brilliant in the areas of player management, strategy and organisation, on the biggest stage there was also the sense that she was out-coached by Norma Plummer, both in the world championships loss on home soil in 2007 and more especially in Singapore this year where a conservative approach to substitutions proved costly.

Young stars shine

More than ever before, 2011 was the year of the youngsters. Never before has so much talent had a chance to impress for their franchises and taken it.

Eight of the 12-strong New Zealand under-21 team were drawn from the ANZ Championship and half of that side will still be eligible for the 2013 World Youth Cup.

Kayla Cullen was the stand-out, going from a bench player for the Mystics to a starter for the Ferns and a major reason why Joline Henry joined the Pulse.

Sulu Tone-Fitzpatrick was another teenager to get game time for the Ferns and looked more assured with each outing.

The Mystics' Bailey Mes, Jessica Moulds and Portia Woodman impressed as did Julianna Naoupu (Magic), Joanna Trip (Tactix), Ellen Halpenny (Tactix), Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit (Steel) and Amber Bellringer (Pulse).

Removal and revival

The departure of an icon like Robyn Broughton was always going to be difficult but the fact that it played out in the media was unfortunate.

Broughton endured her most difficult season at the Steel as the team could win only four games. The board had earlier decided that the franchise needed a new long-term strategic direction and wanted the veteran coach to re-apply for her post, which she was never going to do. In the end, it could all turn out rosy.

Broughton has attracted some exciting talent to the Pulse while the Steel's new coaching team has built a decent-looking roster and, for the first time, have all 12 players based in the region.

Taumaunu's U-turn

Considered a certainty for the Ferns head coach position after Ruth Aitken's retirement, Wai Taumaunu's sudden change of heart was revealed by the Herald on Sunday.

Similar to Wayne Smith and the All Black role back in 2001, Taumaunu questioned whether she truly wanted the job and even if she was up to it. She then turned down a caretaker role which led to Aitken returning for one last hurrah.

To her credit, Taumaunu was remarkably honest about her feelings throughout the episode and, once she decided to put her name in the ring, was obviously the strongest candidate.

Singapore sorrow

In the aftermath of the world championships heartbreak, one inescapable fact made it even tougher to take.

The Ferns' golden generation had blown their golden opportunity. It was a New Zealand team at their peak against an inexperienced Australian side, especially with key figures such as Sharelle McMahon and Lauren Nourse ruled out with injury.

Australia hoped but did not expect to win and New Zealand were the favourites in most neutral eyes.

Holding a six-goal lead at halftime and, even worse, being a goal up, with possession, with a minute on the clock are positions from which you should not lose big games.

It will be hard to stop Australia grabbing a hat-trick in 2015.

They have a young team on the rise, will be on home soil (Sydney) and the state and federal government recently announced large funding injections for the sport in New South Wales.

Somebody stop 'em.

Fantastic Firebirds

In a dream year for Queensland sport, their netball side ended three years of pain to claim a fully deserved title.

In the previous three seasons, they had finished fifth (and an agonising one place outside the playoffs).

With some astute signings (Chelsea Pitman was a standout) and a maturing of the Natalie Medhurst/Romelda Aiken shooting partnership, the Firebirds were untouchable in 2011 - not dropping a match on their march to the crown.

They convincingly beat the Mystics 52-42 in the final and joined the Brisbane Roar (A-League), Queensland Reds (Super Rugby) and league's Maroons (State of Origin) in claiming titles.

Travelling blues
The problems on the road continued for New Zealand sides in the ANZ Championship, with only four wins from a possible 16 games.

The Mystics broke their duck and the Magic managed a brace (vs the Fever and Thunderbirds) but the Steel, Pulse and Tactix have still to win across the Tasman.

Often attributed to differing umpiring interpretations, the league's experiment of using the opposing nation's officials in some intra-country clashes seemed to have little effect when most of the problems arise from transtasman contests.

- Herald on Sunday

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