Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: Magic need to dent Northern mystique

Mystics' Maria Tutaia says the time has come for her side to show they can be relentless. Photo / Natalie Slade.
Mystics' Maria Tutaia says the time has come for her side to show they can be relentless. Photo / Natalie Slade.

Mystics need win to top the table, a Magic loss will hurt their playoff hopes - something's got to give.

It's a fixture in which the hopes of two New Zealand teams hinge.

The Mystics need to win this weekend to keep their bid to finish on top of the table on track.

The Magic need to win this weekend to have a hope of making the play-offs.

There is no way to balance the needs of the two sides.

Finishing in the top spot on the table is seen as crucial to the Mystics' chances of going one better than last year and taking out the transtasman league title.

Conventional wisdom is that for a New Zealand side to finally break through and win the competition, they need to finish in the top spot, which earns them home advantage and an extra life in the play-offs should they need it.

Having seized the outright lead in the competition with their patchy win over the Steel last Monday, the Mystics are guaranteed the number one seeding if they win their remaining three games.

The Auckland side have to demonstrate a ruthless streak and crush the Magic's play-off hopes in order to advance their own. That is not typically a trait you would associate with the Mystics. They've shown they can be crafty, innovative, determined, absorb pressure well, but ruthless? No.

Mystics shooter Maria Tutaia said the time had come for her side to show a sharper edge.

"I think winning this game is definitely going to establish our mark in the ANZ Championships, especially as a New Zealand side to say 'we're here to take this thing out'," said Tutaia.

"Not forgetting we've got another two matches, but this is where we have to start showing what we're capable of."

While they have been criticised for their up-and-down form this year, the Mystics have shown a determination to pull out the big performances when they've needed to. And the Magic are one team the Mystics have never struggled for motivation against.

Meetings between the neighbouring franchises has typically produced memorable clashes - a result of the two sides knowing each other's play extremely well.

Between them, the two sides hold the bulk of New Zealand's elite players. Right across the court there will be match-ups pitting Silver Fern against Silver Fern - Irene van Dyk v Anna Harrison, the two young guns Julianna Naoupu v Kayla Cullen, Laura Langman v Temepara George (though not technically a Silver Fern anymore), Casey Williams v Maria Tutaia, Leana de Bruin v Cathrine Latu.

Mystics coach Debbie Fuller said the "mate against mate" element to the clash provided extra spice.

"I think when you're playing against competitors you know really well, you always want to go out there and give it that little bit extra," said Fuller.

It took the Mystics four seasons to beat the Magic, but in more recent times the Auckland side have held the edge over their rivals, winning the past three meetings between the two teams.

The idea of now being cast as the underdogs suits Magic coach Noeline Taurua just fine.

Having opened the season with four losses the Waikato-Bay of Plenty team were written off early on. Their situation looked dire, but with each week and each composed performance the Magic have slowly edged their way back in to contention.

"We haven't been the top team, the Mystics have taken that mantle. I wouldn't say the pressure has been any less, because we've had to win every game, but it's presented different obstacles or challenges for us, and it seems to suit us better," said Taurua.

"Yes it's a big game for us, but so was round five, and round six and round seven ..."

This weekend's match is the first of three tough fixtures for the Magic as they endeavour to pull off what looked to be impossible back in round five and win their way through to the finals. They meet the Adelaide Thunderbirds in Tauranga next week followed by the Queensland Firebirds in Hamilton in the final round.

When Taurua sat down to examine the draw at the beginning of the season, she highlighted the final three rounds as a testing stretch for her side. But she didn't quite foresee exactly how crucial these matches would be.

"We didn't anticipate that we would have zilch on the board after the first four rounds and that we'd be under so much heat heading in to the last few rounds," she said. "We all realise that if we can't produce the goods well that's it, end of competition."

- NZ Herald

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