TWO weeks out from ANZ Premiership finals, it is do or die for the Northern Mystics and Mainland Tactix who are battling for second spot on the ladder while the Central Pulse have first spot all but sewn up. Conversely, up the other end of the ladder the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic and Southern Steel are keen to avoid the wooden spoon and progress up the rankings with a strong finish to the season.
Southern Steel v. Northern Mystics
Friday, 7 August
The round starts with a clash between fifth and third on the ladder with the Steel hosting the Mystics. The Steel will take plenty of confidence out of their last outing downing the Mystics by six goals in Round 7 and while they cannot make finals will be eager to influence how the rest of the season pans out.
The injuries for the Steel have come hard and fast especially in the goal circle but with a couple of games under their belts the connection between Ellen Halpenny and Kalifa McCollin is starting to blossom. Halpenny provides that calming element to the goal circle with her precise movements and impeccable timing to pop out right on cue while McCollin has plenty of flair and dynamism to keep the Mystics defenders busy. The two share the shooting load between them meaning the Mystics will have to focus their energy on both goalers if they are to shut down any easy avenue to post. Sulu Fitzpatrick is a seasoned campaigner able to hold her own in the goal circle and win back ball with her long arms and quick feet to get around the body of her opponent. Partner in crime Phoenix Karaka is just as damaging down back able to shut down her opponent with her smothering pressure and three-foot marking. Although the combination with McCollin and Halpenny is developing, Karaka and Fitzpatrick have proven to be a formidable force meaning the Steel will have to be on their a-game.
Wing defence Kate Heffernan has been in ripping form lately with the young midcourter taking everything in her stride and working hard to own that defensive position. She is a constant threat around circle edge with her long arms but will take on speedster Peta Toeava who not only oozes pace but is renowned for her quick release into the circle. The Steel have options if Heffernan is unable to shut down powerhouse wing attack with Kendall Corkery a more physical and niggly style of player, able to get under the skin of Toeava and reduce her efficiency in attack.
With second spot still up for grabs expect the Mystics to throw everything they have at the Steel and exploit their new connections across the court.
Southern Steel v. Central Pulse
Saturday, 8 August
Dropping their first game for this season last round expect the Central Pulse to come out with a real fire in the belly and get the job done early against the Southern Steel. Renowned for their full court pressure and ability to treasure ball the Pulse will be keen to rectify last week’s shortcomings but the Steel will take in a sense of belief after pushing the reigning premiers to their limits in their last meeting.
The midcourt battle will be ferocious with a couple of Silver Ferns lining up against each other. After somewhat of a quiet performance last week Karin Burger will be hoping to assert herself against the Steel and shut down Gina Crampton‘s drive to the top of the circle. Burger is recognised for her three foot marking and long arms to block vision into the goal circle, something that she will be hoping to bring against the Steel in order to limit the influence of Crampton in attack. Partner in crime Shannon Saunders is a real workhorse through the midcourt for the Steel able to have an influence both in an attack in attack and in defence. She will have the job on Pulse centre Claire Kersten making for an intriguing battle between the two given their similarities in game style. Kersten is the key for the Pulse through the midcourt able to provide that consistency and link between attack and defence.
Down on their usual accuracy last week the Central Pulse will be hoping that Ameliaranne Ekenasio and Aliyah Dunn deliver to post. Ekenasio is a real player maker through the attacking third with her impeccable timing and clever touch to deliver ball on a silver platter to Dunn. They have one of the strongest connections in the competition with the two able to light up the court with their flair and clever ability to create space time and time again. Dunn is a strong holding shooter that is able to post up and command the ball no matter the defensive pressure. Te Huinga Selby-Rickit is the most experienced defender in the Steel defensive unit and will have to lead by example if they are to win ball back. Goal keeper Taneisha Fifita has struggled in the past couple of weeks drawing a lot of attention from the umpires, something she will have to address this game if she is to mount pressure on the Pulse and not give them free attempts at goal. The introduction of Abby Erwood could provide that extra element of composure in defence.
Coming off a loss expect the Pulse to bounce back and showcase why they are the reigning premiers with a strong performance across all four quarters against the Steel.
Northern Mystics v. Mainland Tactix
Sunday, 9 August
In their second game of the round the Mystics will want to leave nothing to chance against the second placed Tactix in hope to progress up the ladder and get one step closer to securing a finals berth. In arguably the game of the round both teams will be hoping to prove their worth and showcase why they deserve a spot in the finals. These two teams have a decorated history and are evenly poised heading into the match.
It will all come down to the battle in the goal circle with teenage shooting prodigy Grace Nweke the key to Mystics success given her impressive holds, high volume and accuracy the post. Nweke is a commanding figure under the post and can change the course of a game in an instant given the speed with which she can score and her strength in the air to reel in errant passes time and time again. However their weakness lies within the goal attack position with the likes of Saviour Tui and Filda Vui exciting young prospects but unable to consistently deliver the output required. Tui and Vui are clever with ball in hand but sometimes lack the confidence to go to post piling a wealth of pressure on Nweke to deliver and steer the ship for the Mystics. On the other hand, the Tactix have one of the best defensive units in the competition with Temalisi Fakahokotau and Jane Watson ball magnets down back. Watson is exceptionally clean in defence, able to pick up ball without getting penalised and making her a constant threat for any team, while her drive through the midcourt provides an added boost to the Tactix transition. Impressive individually, the connection between the two defenders is what really puts them ahead of the pack given Fakahokotau can read the play with ease and dictate Watson’s position according to what is unfolding in front of her. It will be up to Vui and Tui to draw the attention of Watson to isolate Fakahokotau and Nweke under the post.
With speed to burn through the midcourt it will be an exciting battle between Tayla Earle and Tactix centre Kimiora Poi as the two possess very similar attributes in the way they hunt the ball and then seamlessly switch into attack. They will match each other for speed and vision into the circle making for a tight tussle. Toeava is another key cog for the Mystics in attack while for the Tactix Erikana Pedersen has proven to be the link into the goalers with her dynamic footwork, quick hands and confidence on the pass to bypass the defenders and look long.
The last time these two sides met the Tactix clinched the narrowest of victories and will be hoping to build on that momentum to edge further ahead on the ladder.
Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic v. Northern Stars
Sunday, 9 August
In their sole game of the round expect both the Magic and Stars to go toe-to-toe throughout the four quarters. With a renewed sense of confidence and a win under their belt the Magic will be keen to keep the good times rolling and secure their second win in as many days. Plagued by inconsistency this season the Stars will be hoping to rectify their issues and record their fifth win.
There is no denying that Maia Wilson is the lynchpin in attack for the Stars with the goal shooter a commanding target under the post with her strong holds and high scoring nature. Wilson is incredibly accurate shooting at a combined 94 per cent last round, a feat she will be hoping to replicate once again this week to lead her side to victory. Although Wilson is the go to girl the Stars do their most damage when goal attack Jamie Hume goes to post and troubles the scoreboard. If she can draw the attention of Erena Mikaere and Georgia Tong it will alleviate the pressure on Wilson under the post and help split the circle to create more one on ones at the post. While Tong is not the tallest defender in the league she makes up for it with her aerial presence and impressive leap to get hands to ball and disrupt the flow in attack, something the Magic will be relying on throughout the contest.
Khiarna Williams has been a revelation for the Magic in attack proving she can play both goal shooter and goal attack with the 17-year-old taking like a duck to water each time she steps out on court. Her growing connection with Kelsey McPhee under the post and Abigail Latu-Meafou is something to behold as the trio are getting stronger and stronger each week. McPhee is an easy target under the post for the Magic meaning the Stars defensive unit of Storm Purvis, Kate Burley and Daystar Swift will have to put in the hard yards out the front to limit her influence to post. The high ball into the circle is often the go to passage of play for the Magic which plays into the tenacious and ball hungry Stars defence.
With relatively even match ups across the court it will come down to the midcourt battle with captain Sam Winders the barometer for the Magic and Grace Kara the playmaker for the Stars. If Winders can dictate the flow through the middle and win ball back the Magic could register another victory.
Central Pulse v. Mainland Tactix
Monday, 10 August
The final game of the round sees a battle of the top two teams with the Central Pulse hoping to make it three straight wins against the Mainland Tactix. Falling agonisingly short in Round 6 the Tactix will be hoping to go one better and upset the Pulse to prove that they are a real finals contender. Playing in their second game of the round it could come down to the depth on the bench and who can withstand the high intensity battle.
Ellie Bird has really hit her strides in the past couple of weeks with the goal shooter dictating the space and using her height to full advantage to reel in passes and shoot truly. Bird is an exciting prospect when she is on song able to nullify the influence of her defender and use her clever footwork to move around the body of her defender and allow the likes of Te Paea Selby-Rickit to come through and have an influence in the goal circle. Selby-Rickit, while she might not put up a wealth of shots, does a plethora of work out the front to deliver the ball into Bird and create attacking forays. In saying that, the Pulse have their own star power down in defence with Kelly Jury having a breakout season, showcasing her exceptional lean over the shot and read of the play to create constant disruption down back. Her ever developing connection with Katrina Rore causes plenty of headaches for opposition teams with the two able to hunt the ball while Elle Temu is a solid option off the bench, able to come on and have an immediate impact with her hands over pressure.
The Pulse have speed to burn through the centre court with Maddy Gordon a real excitement machine and energiser bunny able to hit the circle edge with great speed and tenacity. Impressive in attack it is Gordon’s work through the centre third and defensive pressure to try and win ball back that makes her such a dominant threat. Able to play both goal and wing attack Tiana Metuarau is another player to keep an eye on for the Pulse with her spatial awareness and pinpoint passes into the circle. It will be up to wing defence Charlotte Elley to really shut down the influence of Gordon and Metuarau to ensure that the Pulse have limited opportunity to go forward and score. In recent weeks the inclusion of Samon Nathan into wing defence has provided a different element for the Tactix down back.
Expect this game to go down to the wire with neither side willing to give an inch and fighting not only for the win but momentum heading into finals.