Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: New faces prepare for faceoff

The ANZ Championship starts tonight. Dana Johannsen runs the rule over netball’s premier competition.
Bailey Mes, fresh off a breakthrough season with the Silver Ferns, should star for the Tactix. Picture / Photosport
Bailey Mes, fresh off a breakthrough season with the Silver Ferns, should star for the Tactix. Picture / Photosport

Who's new?
A change in the way the Kiwi teams recruit their line-ups means there will be plenty of new faces in this year's competition. Franchises are looking to promote young talent with a view to developing them for the future. Keep an eye out for Pulse shooter Maia Wilson and the Mystics trio of Michaela Sokolich-Beatson, Fa'amu Ioane and Holly Fowler. There'll be new faces in charge as well, with Tanya Dearns taking over at the Pulse, while former Magic coach Noeline Taurua returns to the competition after replacing Silver Ferns coach Janine Southby at the Steel.

What's different?
With most of the focus in the lead-up to this season on the impending changes to the competition format next year, there hasn't been a lot of talk around this year's changes. The biggest change is around the setting of the penalty, with the team awarded the penalty now not required to wait for the infringing player to stand down before play continues. This will speed up play and prevent the infringing team from deliberately delaying the setting of the penalty to allow their side to re-set their defence.

There'll be no more injury stoppages this year, with players required to be replaced straight away if they call an injury time out. And the perennial gripe of there being "too much whistle" in netball has also been addressed. Umpires will no longer sound their whistle when a goal has been scored or when the ball goes out of court - a measure netball bosses say will reduce the whistle by up to 40 per cent.

What's the Beko League?
The Beko League is a new New Zealand domestic competition to underpin the ANZ Championship. The introduction of the transtasman league in 2008 left a massive hole in New Zealand's competitions structure, with no meaningful competition to bridge the gap between college netball and the ANZ Championship. The Beko League (finally) addresses that. The new competition will feature a team from each of the five zones around the country and run alongside the transtasman league.

Do any of the Kiwi teams have a chance this year?
The conference system introduced last year ensures two New Zealand sides will make the semifinals, but it doesn't seem to necessarily work in the Kiwi teams' favour once they are there. By splitting the league into separate conferences, the Kiwi sides no longer need to beat their Aussie rivals to make it through to the finals. As Dearns put it, it's a format that "engenders mediocrity". It's no coincidence that last year was the least competitive yet for the Kiwi franchises, with New Zealand teams winning just one of the 27 trans-tasman matches (three ended in a draw). The safety net the conference system provides the Kiwi teams does not promote the same level of desperation to win the Aussie battles that it has in the past. There are no stand-out contenders among the New Zealand sides, with the line-ups a lot more evenly matched this season than they have been in the past. The Magic who have several youngsters, will be stronger for their experience last season after their players were forced to step up after losing inspirational defender Casey Kopua and experienced midcourter Courtney Tairi to injury last year. The Mystics have again assembled a strong line-up, albeit with a couple of crucial holes. The Pulse also have plenty of talent, but the loss of experienced shooter Jodi Brown to a career-ending knee injury could hit them hard, particularly in the early rounds. If things are looking grim mid-season, you could always throw your support in behind the Swifts team, who feature veteran Ferns midcourter Laura Langman.

Who are the favourites?
The Firebirds are looking to become the first team to win back-to-back titles this season. Last year's beaten finalists, the Swifts, should also be contenders, although they have lost some key experience in the defensive end with the retirement of Julie Corletto.

The Tactix - still wooden spooners?
Don't underestimate the Tactix this season. They're looking fit and focused and their unorthodox shooting line-up of Bailey Mes, fresh off a breakthrough season with the Silver Ferns, and Malawi international Mwai Kumwenda will cause some teams problems. But they are probably lacking experience in the defensive end to be a threat this year.

Magic hit by injuries again

The Magic will begin the 2016 ANZ Championship season much the way they started the last: cursing their luck on the injury front.

The Waikato-Bay of Plenty side, who won the New Zealand conference last season after battling through several injury setbacks, will open their 2016 campaign against the Pulse on Monday night with an injury cloud over their most experienced players.

The biggest concern is over key midcourter Grace Rasmussen, who picked up an ankle injury in her side's opening game of the pre-season tournament earlier this month, and isn't expected to take the court in the opening round.

Fellow midcourter Courtney Tairi, who missed virtually all last season after rupturing her Achilles tendon in the opening round, has also battled a pre-season ankle injury, while veteran defender Leana de Bruin has been hampered by a foot injury.

"I have to say we haven't had a lot of luck, they're all new injuries and it's kind of disappointing because they were all in such great shape when they came in. But these things happen in sport," said Magic coach Julie Fitzgerald.

De Bruin, who will again lead the Magic this season, said she is hopeful she can prove her fitness in the team's final training run over the weekend.

"It is frustrating but every day, I get a little bit better," de Bruin said. "Hopefully I can get a runaround [tomorrow] and be ready to go on Monday."

The extended pre-season appears to have taken its toll, with returning Mystics defender Anna Harrison also battling a niggly calf injury. However, Mystics coach Debbie Fuller has declared the star defender fit for tonight's season opener against the Steel in Auckland.

The Pulse were arguably dealt the most brutal pre-season blow, losing experienced shooter Jodi Brown to a career-ending knee injury. The Pulse this week named Te Amo Amaru-Tibble as Brown's replacement.

ANZ Championship

Round 1 - Tonight
7pm, Mystics v Steel,
The Trusts Arena, Auckland.
9pm, Firebirds v Tactix,
BCEC, Brisbane.

2pm, Fever v Thunderbirds,
HBF Stadium, Perth.

2pm, Swifts v Vixens,
SOPSC, Sydney.

7.30pm, Pulse v Magic,
TSB Bank Arena, Wellington.

- NZ Herald

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