Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: Steel the surprise threat to Magic

Riding on the coat-tails of their Jamaican shooting ace Jhaniele Fowler, southerners look dangerous

Jhaniele Fowler. Photo / Getty Images
Jhaniele Fowler. Photo / Getty Images

When Noeline Taurua ran her rule over the Magic's draw this season, it is unlikely she would have circled this weekend's round nine clash against the Southern Steel as a season-defining game for her side.

The beefed-up Central Pulse line-up and traditional rivals the Northern Mystics loomed as the most obvious candidates to challenge the Magic's dominance of the New Zealand conference.

But it is the Steel, riding on the coat-tails of their Jamaican shooting ace Jhaniele Fowler, who have emerged as the biggest local threat.

After eight rounds the Magic and Steel are on equal points, with the defending champions' stronger goal percentage putting them just ahead of the southerners in fourth place on the ANZ Championship ladder.

After a patchy opening half to the season, the Magic need the two points on offer in Invercargill today to firm up their place in the top four and ensure they remain within striking distance of the Australian heavyweights at the top of the table - the Thunderbirds, Vixens and Firebirds.

Having built up some handy momentum with three straight wins, the Steel find themselves in a position they haven't been in since 2010 - labelled as genuine play-offs contenders - and are hungry to convert their chances.

With their only wins coming against the bottom three teams on the ladder (two against the Mystics), and a game plan heavily reliant on one player, there are some who remain unconvinced the Steel are the real deal. Others have sniffily dismissed the Steel as being a boring side. But when you have a 1.98m shooting supremo anchoring your attack end, the strategy is always going to be simple - get the ball to 'Jae'.

Averaging more than 52 goals a game in her rookie season, Fowler is undoubtedly the most influential player in the league this year and much of the Magic's defensive strategy today will be centred around stopping the ball from getting anywhere near the Steel's attacking third.

Magic captain Laura Langman said while Fowler is an obvious target, her side also need to shut down wily goal attack Jodi Brown, who has shown deft touches with her feeding into the circle, leading the league in goal assists.

"It's a really good challenge for us. We'll probably have to change our defensive strategy and focus for this week but on attack it will be business as usual," said Langman.

The fleet-footed Langman, who was at her industrious best against the Pulse, is not concerned by the short four-day turnaround between matches for the Magic, following last Monday's come-from-behind win over the Pulse.

"If anything it keeps the clip up," she said. "Gaining momentum from the Pulse game, hopefully we can carry that same energy into the Steel game and it could work in our favour."

The other big game of the weekend as far as top four implications are concerned will see the Vixens host the Queensland Firebirds in Melbourne tomorrow. Sitting second and third on the ladder respectively, a tight battle is expected, although the Firebirds will be without their inspirational captain Laura Geitz after the death of her father Ross this week.

The Adelaide Thunderbirds are tipped to maintain their place atop the league ladder when they take on the struggling NSW Swifts in Adelaide tomorrow, before the Tactix meet Norma Plummer's West Coast Fever side in Nelson.

Round 9

Today: 4.20pm Southern Steel v Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic, Invercargill.

Tomorrow: 2.10pm Melbourne Vixens v Queensland Firebirds, Melbourne; 4.10pm Adelaide Thunderbirds v NSW Swifts, Adelaide; 7.20pm Mainland Tactix v West Coast Fever, Nelson.

Monday: 7.40pm Central Pulse v Northern Mystics, Porirua.

- NZ Herald

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