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

Netball: Still a franchise changer

Irene van Dyk. Photo / Christine Cornege
Irene van Dyk. Photo / Christine Cornege

Given her age, Irene van Dyk's homecoming switch to the Pulse should really be a last stand.

But it's more likely going to be a new beginning, for both athlete and franchise. Veteran players, certainly not 41-year-olds, shouldn't be able to alter the landscape in such dramatic fashion, but van Dyk's achievements at the Magic stand comparison with what Richie McCaw and Dan Carter have been able to do for the Crusaders.

She's still a franchise-changer. Her movements remain sharp enough for the Pulse's midcourt to find her from anywhere and her shooting, well, maybe that will never lose its edge. Get the ball to van Dyk - much like the All Blacks used to get the ball to Jonah Lomu - and the Pulse will fancy they can beat anyone.

But van Dyk's decision to shift is likely to be mutually beneficial: there's probably as much in it for her as there is the Pulse. She will rid herself of the endless travel; the monotony of the commute up the North Island which in itself could prolong her career.

She will have more time at home, more time with the family and while such statements are cynically proffered when athletes are being let go, in her case it's an obvious plus and a genuine reason for making the move.

There's also the inescapable fact that the Magic aren't going to be the same team next year without Laura Langman. They won't quite be branded a development side - not unless there are more high profile defections - but certainly life will be tougher and they will be closer to the bottom of the table than the top. It would have been harder for van Dyk to retain her enthusiasm and incredible mental drive that has kept her at the forefront of the game for a decade or more.

So when van Dyk heard on a Monday morning almost two weeks ago, via text, from Langman about her decision to leave the Magic, the veteran probably knew she, too, would reach the same decision. Three days later van Dyk called Langman, Casey Kopua and Leana de Bruin to tell them (and emailed the rest of the team).

"They were pretty understanding - we know each other so well," says van Dyk. "They wished me well."

But the departures of van Dyk and Langman could be disastrous in the short term for New Zealand's most successful ANZ Championship team. It's important to understand her legacy there to have a feel for what kind of impact she could have at the Pulse.

Van Dyk spent 11 years at the Magic. Across that period she played 136 games, shooting more than 4800 goals at an average of more than 35 per game.

She helped the Magic to six consecutive ANZ Championship finals appearances, including a record 14 playoff games. They reached three grand finals, winning one.

Van Dyk also helped to turn around their fortunes in the National Bank Cup. After joining the team in 2003, the Magic never finished out of the top four in the New Zealand competition and were the first team to break the dominance of the Steel, winning titles in 2005 and 2006.

Only perhaps McCaw (11 seasons, four titles) and Carter (10 seasons, four titles) at the Crusaders are comparable in terms of influence on a major New Zealand sporting franchise. Stacey Jones spent more than a decade at the Warriors but didn't get the success his talent and effort deserved. Van Dyk moved to the Magic at the end of the 2002 season, after three years with the Capital Shakers.

"It was the year of the World Championships and I thought my best preparation was to play with established [Silver Fern] midcourters like Amigene Metcalfe and Jenny-May Coffin," recalls van Dyk. "I needed to build those links."

The Capital Shakers never recovered - they didn't make the finals again during the rest of the National Bank Cup. Looking back, the move was typical of van Dyk's single- mindedness: she wanted to consolidate her Ferns spot and saw the Magic as the best place to do it. Behind the friendly, smiling persona there is also an intensely driven, competitive winner. Her enduring memories of the Magic years, aside from the friendships forged and on court successes, were the "hard yards" they did every year with coach Noeline Taurua. Last year it was boxing and wrestling in the pre-season.

Van Dyk adds that there was some kind of "emotional meltdown" just about every year at the Magic.

"It was part of our culture and just seemed to happen," says van Dyk. "We always had high expectations and then things might not happen. But it was always a positive outcome from it. People took responsibility."

The toughest moments came in 2012, after the Magic had lost their first four games of the season.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house but everyone stood up to be accountable," says van Dyk. "We all know what happened from there."

Van Dyk estimates she has taken around 50 return flights per year in her commute from Wellington over the last six years of the ANZ Championship, as well at least 25 during each season of the National Bank Cup.

She has banked "millions" of frequent flyer miles, which she has mainly used for upgrades from economy class when her Ferns duties take her on long haul flights.

"I guess now I will have more time at home," says van Dyk of a life without the constant travel.

- Herald on Sunday

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