Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Inner Circle: The future of the ANZ Championship

Storm Purvis (left) has been a standout for the Southern Steel. Photo / Getty
Storm Purvis (left) has been a standout for the Southern Steel. Photo / Getty

How 'bout those Tactix?

The ANZ Championship's perennial strugglers boosted themselves into second position on the New Zealand conference standings with a thrilling one-goal win over the woefully inconsistent Northern Mystics last night.

It was easily the most popular result of the round, with even some of the stars of Australian netball sending the Tactix a virtual pat on the back via social media. But is all the gushing a little bit patronising towards the Tactix?

Sue Hawkins has developed the Canterbury side into a very strong unit, and when they find their rhythm, the can produce both style and substance on attack. In Silver Fern Bailey Mes and Malawi international Mwai Kumwenda, the Tactix also possess the most exciting and dynamic shooting combination in the league. It's time to start taking the Tactix seriously.

Big scorelines across the Tasman

While nail-biting finishes such as last night's one-goal thriller in Christchurch are becoming the norm in the New Zealand conference, across the Tasman the matches have been a lot more one-sided. Over the first four rounds the closest result has been 11-goals, with the average winning margin in the all-Australia clashes being a touch over 15 goals.

Traditionally the competition among the Australian teams has been tight, with any team capable of beating their domestic rivals on any given team. But this year there are two clear frontrunners in the defending champion Queensland Firebirds and last year's beaten finalists, the NSW Swifts.

Both sides have been in rampant form early on this season, setting the scene for a big showdown this Saturday. The Firebirds will be looking to extend their record winning streak to 18 games, while the Swifts (feat. Laura Langman) will be seeking to snatch the Challenge Trophy (remember that old thing) away from their Queensland rivals.

While the Firebirds and Swifts have produced some outstanding netball in the opening rounds, the lopsided results have come at an inopportune time for Netball Australia as they attempt to sell an exciting new domestic product to broadcasters.

D-Day looms

With an announcement on the future of the ANZ Championship expected to be made next month, it is crunch time for netball bosses as they finalise the details of the new format next season.

All signs point to the divorce proceedings being put on hold, with Netball NZ and their Australian counterparts opting for a trial separation instead.

It is understood Netball Australia have not been able to secure the money they had hoped for from a broadcast deal, and will not be able to fund its own breakaway league. Instead the competition will likely move to a "Champions League" style format, whereby each country will hold its own domestic league and the top three of four teams from each side of the Tasman will meet in a separate play-offs series at the end. There's also been whispers mid-week crossover matches.

How does Watson measure up?

Inner Circle is eagerly awaiting the results of an official remeasure of Southern Steel defender Jane Watson.

Watson, who has been a stand-out for the Steel over the early rounds, is listed in the media guide at 1.81m - which is considered positively tiny for defenders these days - yet there doesn't appear to be much of a mis-match in height when the 26-year-old lines up against some of tall shooters in the league.

Battle for Ferns spots

Watson is just one of a handful of young defenders that have emerged as Silver Ferns contenders this year.

With captain Casey Kopua taking time away from the sport ahead of the birth of her first child, there is a defensive spot up for grabs in the New Zealand line-up. New Ferns coach Janine Southby last year elevated the Steel's Storm Purvis and Jess Moulds, who sealed the match-winning intercept for the Tactix last night, into the wider New Zealand squad. But the pair are facing stiff competition from several other players from outside the contracted squad for a spot in Southby's first test line-up.

The Pulse's Phoenix Karaka, who, after winning selection in last year's World Cup team, was demoted into the New Zealand accelerant squad at the end of the year following a drop-off in fitness, will be fighting hard to win her spot back. The Mystics' Temalisi Fakahokotau, who also has a couple of tests under her belt, must come into consideration by the selectors if she can address concerns over her discipline and work ethic.

Then there is Watson, who will go a long way to pushing her case for national selection with a strong game against Australian sharpshooter Caitlin Bassett of the West Coast Fever this weekend, and the Mystics' teenage star Holly Fowler.

- NZ Herald

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