The introduction of a second Auckland team to the new elite netball league will only strengthen the competitiveness of the domestic netball scene, says Central Pulse skipper Katrina Grant.
New Zealand's newest sporting franchise - the Northern Stars - will make their debut this Sunday, when they take on the Southern Steel in the opening game of the ANZ Premiership.
There were initially fears the addition of another team to the mix may dilute the talent pool, resulting in a weakened competition. But Grant, who also leads the national side, believes the spread of talent around the country is as even as it has ever been.
"The preseason tournament in Otaki [earlier this month] made us realise how hard this competition is going to be, week-in, week out. I think there is a better spread of talent around the whole country this year, so all the games are going to be hugely competitive," said Grant, who was in Auckland today to help lead a netball fitness session for students at Mt Albert Grammar School as part of ANZ's "Dream Big" programme for netball.
One of the frustrations for the Silver Ferns coaching staff in the old trans-Tasman league was the country's star players tended to be bunched in one or two franchises, particularly in the early years. It not only made for some ugly scorelines for the teams that weren't blessed with depth, it meant, in some cases, fringe Silver Fern squad members were sitting on the bench behind their more experienced team-mates.
Of the players that took the court for the Silver Ferns in 2016, four will play for the Mystics this season, while the Steel boast the same number. The Magic have three current Ferns on their books, and the Stars and Pulse have two each.
The Tactix are the only franchise without a current Silver Fern in their ranks, though captain Jess Moulds would have almost certainly got her chance last year had a serious knee injury not intervened.
The more even sprinkling of talent this season appears to have come about through a change of thinking as to how teams recruit players. Rather than making bold 'Hail Mary' plays for the top names, teams have grown more savvy and chased players in the national set-up that are perhaps under-utilised at franchise level.
Despite the disadvantage of being a new set-up and, therefore, an unknown quantity for the players, the Stars have done well with their recruitment, pulling together a team of top-name stars (Kayla Cullen, Leana de Bruin and Maia Wilson) with promising young talent (Fa'amu Ioane and Emma Iverson) and a couple of wildcards (import Afa Rusivakula and Malia Vaka).
Former Silver Fern and Stars midcourter Courtney Tairi believes the South Auckland-based franchise can make an immediate impact on the league this year.
"We can't wait for round one this weekend, we're really excited about the potential of our group and what we can achieve this season," she said.
Grant said the strength of the competition puts added importance on getting their season off on the right note in this weekend's Super Sunday round in Hamilton.
"A first-up win [over the Mystics] is going to be very important to kickstart our season. We can't afford to make a slow start," she said.
The Pulse v Mystics clash will be the third match-up of the opening night of action, in which all six teams will play at Claudelands Arena in back-to-back games.