The Women's Basketball Championship (WBC) Finals tournament begins on Thursday in Porirua with a number of teams having roster changes forced upon them.
Three of the six teams competing for the championship have lost personnel to the Tall Ferns who depart for China the day before WBC begins.
Waitakere Lady Rangers are the heaviest hit as not only have they lost Chevannah Paalvast, Deena Franklin and Ferns debutant Katelin Noyer but also their experienced coach Aik Ho who is part of the Tall Ferns coaching setup. His assistant Ollie Bryce, who will also have to manage without the injured Annalina Crosbie, will fill his shoes.
Ho is disappointed to be missing the championships but is in a perfect position to comment on the chances of some of the other teams.
Auckland Counties Manukau Lady Hawks have a couple of huge holes to fill with guards Jordan Hunter and Hailey Moala (nee Purcell) absent. Hunter is required by the Ferns and Moala has headed overseas to take up a contract with Gladstone Power in the Queensland Basketball League alongside sister and former Tall Fern Charmian Mellors. Coach Tania Hunter will have to be at her strategic best to cover for those losses.
The Tall Ferns assistant says, " They will have Breanna Jones of course and I like the look of young Sharne Robati but Hunter will be a huge hole to fill and they will struggle without her."
Waikato Wizards will need to manage without Krystal Leger-Walker. The 18 year old is a major offensive weapon for Waikato but her absence will give opportunities to the likes of Kendall Heremia and Georgia Perrott-Hunt. Veterans Miriam Stevens and Natasha Lenden will need to make significant contributions if Waikato is to see semi-final action.
Despite an Injury cloud hanging over import centre Ashley Gayle the Alloyfold Canterbury Wildcats will go into the tournament as title favourites. The Wildcats have the deepest roster in the competition and boast a 9-0 unbeaten record in the current campaign.
Ho says, "If they have Pip Connell back from injury to boost their forward stocks they will be a tough proposition but certainly if Gayle can't play it helps the other teams."
A positive for the Wildcats is that former Olympian Tall Fern Sally Farmer is likely to be wearing a red and black singlet for the first time in over 10 years.
"I think it is great for the younger players to have someone of Sally's experience willing to be in the mix. Sally and I played together and she was happy to come back more for the team's benefit than her own, which I am grateful for," said Wildcats coach Lori McDaniel.
Oceana Gold Rush Otago, last season's champions, will be smiling as they appear to be at full strength. The Tall Ferns assistant coach likes their chances, "They've made two recent finals and I'm picking them to make it again this time. It's great to see a bunch of local girls that have grown up in the team together doing so well. It's good to see Toddy (coach Todd Marshall) doing such a good job without the stars of last year Jillian Harmon and Samara Gallaher."
Also appearing to be at full strength are Taranaki Thunder. "For me they are the sleeping giants," says Ho. "With Jess Tuki leading the team anything could happen with that group," he says.
The six teams are divided into two pools of three with the top two in each progressing to semi-final play.
Pool A is made up of Alloyfold Canterbury Wildcats, Waitakere Lady Rangers and Waikato Wizards
Pool B comprises of Oceana Gold Rush Otago, Auckland Counties Manukau Lady Hawks and Taranaki Thunder.
The other four teams will contest the Plate Competition. Capital Flyers bounced back from a horror first tournament to finish strongly in their second outing in Nelson. Tauranga City Coasters and Te Tai Tokerau Phoenix have both improved greatly from last season and are capable of upsetting the Flyers and the other strong contenders Nelson Sparks.
Canterbury will be looking to win their first title since 2005 but there are a few hurdles to overcome before that might eventuate.