Inner Circle: The pressure is on

By Dana Johannsen

Silver Ferns star Kayla Cullen is battling to return to full fitness. Photo / Getty Images
Silver Ferns star Kayla Cullen is battling to return to full fitness. Photo / Getty Images

Mystics

With just three rounds remaining in the regular season, hope that Silver Ferns star Kayla Cullen will return to the ANZ Championship this year is fast running out. The athletic defender ruptured her ACL on the eve of last year's World Youth Cup in Glasgow and the road back to fitness has been long and slow. At the beginning of the season, Mystics coach Debbie Fuller was realistic about Cullen's chances of taking the court this year. But she hoped to at least have Cullen back to taking part in full contest training by the later rounds of the competition, with the possibility she could be thrown on for a quarter here and there if the situation arose. But it seems to have been one step forward, two steps backwards for Cullen's rehabilitation. She was able to start running in a straight line back in March, but it is understood she has been unable to advance much beyond that without experiencing pain. With her hopes of Commonwealth Games selection now dashed, Cullen will have her sights set on returning to action in July's national champs and doing enough to earn selection for the test series against Australia and England this year.

Magic

After blowing two chances of claiming the outright lead in the competition, the Magic are holding on to second spot on the ladder by a thread as the leaderboard tightened further at the weekend. Only goal percentage is separating first from fourth on the ladder, with the Vixens, Magic, Swifts and Firebirds all lumped together on 14 points. While they are still very much in the mix for a playoff spot, the Magic will be kicking themselves for failing to make the most of their opportunities. The Vixens' loss to the Swifts in round 10 left them vulnerable heading into their bye weekend, but the Magic let them off the hook, dropping two straight matches. Last week's loss to the Steel especially hurt the Magic, with the team leading by 10 goals at one point early in the second period only to crumble when the inevitable fightback came from the Steel. The frustration of their poor performance, and what it means for their finals hopes, was evident on the faces of the players after the match. The Magic have now run out of wriggle-room and Casey Kopua's side will need to produce a big performance against the Tactix on Monday to prevent their campaign from descending into free-fall.

Pulse

Shooting veteran Irene van Dyk burst back to prominence last week with a dominant performance in the Pulse's win over the Tactix. Van Dyk produced her best numbers of the season, racking up a match-high 43 goals at an accuracy rate of 95 per cent to lead her side to an important win. Her efforts saw her pick up her first "golden bib" award of the season, as the stand-out shooter of the round. With goal attack Donna Wilkins - the Pulse's key ball distributor - sidelined last week with an ankle complaint, the Pulse needed a big performance from van Dyk and she delivered. The veteran shooter appeared more comfortable in the shooting circle with former Silver Fern Paula Griffin, who took on the goal attack role in the absence of Wilkins. Griffin, who plays more of a floating style of game rather than directing the play as Wilkins does, allowed van Dyk more room to move under the hoop.

Tactix

While the league's heavyweight teams are focused on the play-offs race, at this stage in the season there is little more the Tactix can do but look ahead to next year. Their key priority in the coming weeks is re-signing star import Mwai Kumwenda, who has been a revelation for the Canterbury side this year. The Malawi shooter has been a stand-out on the international stage over the past couple of years, but there were question marks over how her unorthodox style would mesh with the Tactix game plan. To their credit, the Tactix have done an excellent job of developing an attacking game plan focused on quick ball movement that makes best use of Kumwenda's considerable talents. The slightly built shooter is second only to the Steel's 1.98m shooting machine Jhaniele Fowler-Reid in goals scored this season, with an impressive accuracy rate of 91.5 per cent. Tactix CEO Brigit Hearn said talks were underway with Kumwenda, but as yet a deal has not been reached. Should Kumwenda be re-signed it will leave English import Jade Clarke in limbo once again. For the last few seasons league bosses have granted the Tactix an exemption to sign two imports in an effort to try and improve competitive balance, but there are no guarantees the same will happen in 2015.

Steel

The Steel call it "magenta magic" but for their rivals they have become the "magenta menace". After ousting the Mystics from play-offs contention in round 10, the Steel dealt the Magic's hopes of a home final a major blow last week with a 62-57 upset win. Some superstitious fans believe the Steel's impressive late season form is down to a change in playing strip. Because of a colour clash they were forced to wear their alternative dress against the Mystics in Auckland, but after their dominant showing they opted to stick with it for their match at home last week. While it looks as if the Steel's late surge may have come too late, they are not completely out of the reckoning for a playoff spot just yet. According to the ANZ Championship's finals predictor, based on number crunching by Champion Data, the southerners have a 19.8 per cent chance of making the top four. Despite having racked up six losses this season, statistically the Steel are considered a better play-offs chance than the Pulse (15.4 per cent), who have only four losses this season, but an appalling record across the Tasman, where their last two matches will be played. Still, it would take a lot of other results to go their way, and of course relying on the magenta strip to retain its magic for the southerners to make the finals now.

- NZ Herald

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