Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Netball: Cullen has big shoes to fill at centre, but getting there

Kayla Cullen. Photo / Getty Images
Kayla Cullen. Photo / Getty Images

Her transition into the midcourt has been bumpy but young Silver Ferns star Kayla Cullen knows more than anyone the challenges of getting to grips with a new position.

Shunted from the shooting circle to the defensive end early on in her fledgling career, Cullen has most recently been trialled at centre during the Quad Series as Waimarama Taumaunu seeks to develop an alternate game plan that doesn't rely so heavily on Laura Langman.

After a couple of solid performances against South Africa and England in the opening games, Cullen's inexperience in the middle was brutally exposed against the Diamonds in last weekend's transtasman match-up in Sydney.

The general assessment of Cullen's performance was she was thrown in the deep end and drowned. But the reality was every Fern out on court was outclassed in the 20-goal hammering and Taumaunu remains convinced Cullen's future lies in the midcourt.

"Kayla is an incredible athletic talent, she has a lot of raw speed and power through the middle and I think she offers us a lot at centre," said Taumaunu.

Cullen will likely get further game time at centre against the Proteas in the fifth leg of the Quad Series tonight in Tauranga, possibly linking with Camilla Lees in order to give Langman a rare spell on the bench ahead of Thursday's re-match against Australia.

Despite being widely panned for her outings at centre so far, Cullen is said to be enjoying her new role, which any coach will tell you is half the battle when it comes to getting players to take a new position.

But it's not really a surprise the 20-year-old enjoys the freedom at centre. With a stacked Ferns defensive end, the only other spot for her on the team is at wing defence - more a position for hard working grafters, rather than an exciting athletic talent like Cullen.

The centre position allows Cullen to package up the attacking skills she honed as a young shooter in the New Zealand under-21s and her defensive talents, developed over the past three seasons at the Northern Mystics. Cullen undoubtedly has the speed, dynamism, defensive nous and deft touch with her feeding to be a star centre.

But she is still learning the nuances of the role - like how to balance the court; knowing when to float and when to drive hard; recognising when to hold your ground on the circle edge and when to re-set the attack; and developing the confidence to be assertive when marshalling the troops on defence.

Cullen admits she is still feeling a bit lost in her new job: "I'm still trying to find my bearings [at centre], but I'm finding it a good challenge," she said. "There's a few things with my positional play that I'm still learning."

It's the type of intuition that can only come with experience and a full ANZ Championship season at centre will serve as a handy apprenticeship for Cullen.

With an overflow of defensive talent following the recruitment of Australian star Julie Corletto, Cullen is likely to be shifted into the Mystics midcourt, filling the void left by the retirement of captain Temepara George (now Bailey). To prepare her for this, Taumaunu said Cullen has a lot of conditioning work to do over summer if she is to be able to cope with the intensity of a full game at centre.

It would be wrong to say Cullen is looking forward to the rigorous training regime that awaits her following the international season, but she said she is determined to put in the work.

"Yeah, that sounds fun," Cullen joked. "[Improving my fitness] is something that I've been wanting to do anyway and I think it will make me a better player, so I just need to get on with it."

- Herald on Sunday

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