Michael Burgess

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

Netball: Team retains the magic

By tomorrow night, the Magic could be top of the ANZ Championship with a 100 per cent record from their first three games. It wasn't meant to be like this.

This year was supposed to be rebuilding; a transition time of struggle.

The Magic had lost foundation coach Noeline Taurua, the only one in the ANZ Championship to take a team to all six finals series.

Captain Laura Langman headed north up State Highway One and Irene van Dyk, who had averaged almost 500 goals a season, returned to Wellington.

In total, 10 players left the Waikato and the franchise also had a new chief executive. They struggled pre-season, the only team that failed to win any of their six matches at the Summer Shootout in Melbourne.

It's early days but the signs are that the Magic will continue to improve and be among the strongest New Zealand contenders for a top four position.

So how did this happen?

1 The focus of Fitzgerald

The controversial appointment of Australian Julie Fitzgerald as coach already looks a master stroke. She probably had a point to prove, after her awkward exit from the Swifts, and has shown the benefits of her experience. Players have been surprised by the intensity of training sessions but admit it was "just what they needed".

She has insisted on players being based in the same area (only Grace Rasmussen travels from Auckland) and was a key driver in the establishing of a central training hub. Fitzgerald didn't panic during the pre-season setbacks, realising that it would take time for nine new players to gel. Off the court, Fitzgerald has embraced the Magic culture completely and has taken a significant interest in the wider game, writing directly to members and attending meetings with commercial partners.

2 Captain Casey

Casey Kopua looks a new player. She was always going to be a key figure but becoming skipper has revitalised her. Kopua has an understated leadership style but it is definitely effective. Fitzgerald has also encouraged Kopua and Leana de Bruin to add more variety to their game this year, rejuvenating the veteran defensive duo.

3 The hunger games

Look across the Magic roster and you'll see plenty of players with points to prove, always an ideal scenario. Courtney Tairi wasn't wanted by the Steel, then was sidelined by the Ferns early in last year's Constellation Cup series and discarded for the England tour. Bessie Manu, such a promising player a few years ago, wasn't sure if she would continue with netball after leaving the Tactix and at one point contemplated switching to rugby. England's Joanne Harten has stepped into the shadow of van Dyk; Joanna Trip, who had won just five games in the last three seasons, and there is also the perennially underrated Ellen Halpenny. Grace Rasmussen was seen as the next big thing back in 2011, touted as a future Silver Ferns star, then 'disappeared' through a combination of injury, form and selection decisions. Now she's back, and the Mystics must be ruing the decision to let the 26-year-old depart.

4 The Magic house

At the bequest of Fitzgerald, the Magic arranged for a house for four of their out-of-town players (Halpenny, Harten, Manu and Tairi) to live together in Hamilton. It's a snapshot of the commitment to cohesion which has seen the squad (with nine new recruits) gel quickly. "It's all about developing combinations - time together is so important," says Fitzgerald, who has also encouraged the players to spent time together socially.

5 The heart of Harten

We've been guilty of underestimating the English shooter. Turning 25 on Friday, she has averaged 400 goals a season the past two years, despite playing for a team that lost 22 games out of 26. Rather than being daunted by replacing van Dyk, Harten is thriving (shooting at 96 per cent in the first two rounds), and enjoyed back-to-back ANZ Championship victories for the first time in her career after the Mystics win.

"I've been a young player in most of the teams I've been in but now it's like trying to be a leader in the attack end in this team," says Harten. "There's a lot of self-responsibility [here] but it's also a pressured responsibility so, if you do the work, you'll be able to achieve on court."

Fitzgerald, who first saw Harten at the 2009 World Youth Championships, has been a long-time admirer: "She brings so much variety. She can play as a holding shooter or a moving shooter. She's got so much potential."

6 Culture club

Taurua, Langman and van Dyk left a huge hole but the Magic culture has been retained. Of all the New Zealand teams, the Magic has always been the one that has the stomach for the battle. That feeling remains around the 2014 edition. The Mystics mounted a strong third quarter comeback last week and lesser teams may have folded away from home. But the Magic stayed strong and never looked like losing in the final quarter.

Magic's Mountain

* The Magic had nine new players at the start of this season, more than any other team.

* They have the youngest squad (average age 23.9 years) in the ANZ Championship.

* Casey Kopua is the only remaining foundation player at the franchise.

- Herald on Sunday

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