Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Netball: Tutaia Our issues resolved

Ruth Aitken and Maria Tutaia are still working through their coach-captain relationship. Photo / Photosport
Ruth Aitken and Maria Tutaia are still working through their coach-captain relationship. Photo / Photosport

Despite the results, rumours and ructions of recent weeks, Mystics captain Maria Tutaia says all is well between her and coach Ruth Aitken and insists the Auckland franchise can still make the ANZ Championship top four play-offs.

There has been talk of unrest out west since Aitken was appointed late last year. Players were disappointed by the lack of consultation and some, as reported by the New Zealand Herald, had qualms about the decision itself.

The unease has been accentuated by their start to 2013, where they lost their first four games, conceding more than 70 goals a game. But Tutaia, handed the armband for the first time since high school, says the dynamic is honest and healthy.

"Our relationship is great," Tutaia told the Herald on Sunday. "If I feel strongly about something, I don't hesitate to tell her how it is and the same with her as well. You have difficulties but every coach and captain have difficulties.

"There is no such thing as a perfect relationship but we are just honest with each other," says Tutaia. "If something needs to be said and it is going to be hurtful or detrimental, we need to think: 'Is it best for the team?' If it is, then we will say it. That is a relationship that you really should have with your coach."

Says Aitken: "Maria has been outstanding off and on the court. She is working well to show the right leadership and that has been heartening. Obviously an identified leader is not what Maria has been in the past but she has really developed."

Tutaia also refuted the suggestion she had approached the Pulse in the off-season, looking to transfer from Auckland.

"Whoever said it - God knows who - I did not approach the Pulse," says Tutaia. "They approached me - just to nail that fact down.

"At the time, I did keep my options open. I did think about it and I didn't say no straight away but I'm glad that I am here with the Mystics. The coaching side had nothing to do with the possibility of me going to the Pulse - if I was ever going to go."

Aitken first picked a teenaged Tutaia in the Silver Ferns in 2005 and they worked together for seven seasons. Aitken's out-of-the-blue appointment was a big call - stranger still that the Mystics players were not part of the process. It's not as if they expect to rubber stamp appointments but in the player-driven culture of many sports these days, athlete feedback is vital.

"I'm not going to lie about that," says Tutaia of her disappointment over the lack of consultation. "It's part of the contract - you have to consult your players - but in saying that, a few of us had been under [Ruth] for quite some time, so it was probably more we knew what to expect. I know the young ones at the Mystics are really relishing her and she does a lot for them."

There have been some mitigating factors around the Mystics' malaise: loss of key players with injury, retirement and pregnancy, the adaptation of Diamonds defender Julie Corletto into a New Zealand system combined with the inexperience of much of the squad (the youngest in the league).

"We have got so many 'babies' in our team which is unheard of in an ANZ Championship team," says Tutaia. "It's been a disruptive pre-season and bringing everything together with all those challenges has been quite hard. But also we needed to take responsibility. We needed to look at ourselves in the mirror and suss out what the hell was going on. We needed to get our shit together."

There has been tension in the camp - in a television interview after their round three loss to the Firebirds, Tutaia alluded to off-court issues but she says many have been resolved.

"It was about doing things right and being professional," says Tutaia. "It was about being more punctual, making sure the intensity was there at training - at times you can be guilty of standing around too much and talking about structures and stuff instead of actually doing the business on court.

"[The young players] now know what they need to do to foot it in the ANZ Championship. Yes, they were guilty at times of maybe taking shortcuts but they obviously found out towards the end. It's great to see how they are performing in training compared to where they were in pre-season."

Tutaia never appealed as an obvious skipper - Anna Harrison was going to shoulder the load while Tutaia provided support as co-captain. When Harrison became pregnant, Tutaia was sole skipper.

"It's been a huge learning experience," says Tutaia of her captaincy initiation. "I learned that I can't do everything; I can't look after everyone or do everyone's job. The best way that I can lead is if I perform on the court and do my role first. I have to step back a little and let them do it for themselves."

- Herald on Sunday

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