The lie of the new netball landscape
It's fitting that the world champions of netball will be the first to play the game in front of live crowds again this week.
New Zealand is about to witness another global first - the first women’s sports league back up and running before a live audience, in this strange new world.
The Frauen-Bundesliga, Germany’s women’s football league, has beaten Netball New Zealand to the punch as the first national women’s competition to restart - but only rival teams sit in their stands, at a healthy social distance, wearing face masks.
The Mystics and the Magic resume the ANZ Premiership season on Friday, in a netball league the likes of which we haven't seen before. Quicker games, four or five a weekend, and - to begin with - everyone playing in one city, at one stadium.
For the first two games this Friday and Saturday, the crowd at the Auckland Netball Centre will be made up of friends and whānau - a nod to those who've supported the players through an anxious and, at times, frustrating three months.
From the outside at least, netball appears to be recovering well from its Covid-19 symptoms - undoubtedly helped by the latest government injection of $2.2m. The cash handout means franchise teams are almost back at full capacity, with assistant coaches and physios (many of who were working voluntarily) back on the payroll. Community netball restarts this weekend too.
Having turned a Silver Ferns disaster into a World Cup victory in less than a year, Netball NZ have again been quick to adapt in a calamity.
This time, writing - then rewriting - a new draw for its professional league that would work with changes to alert levels, could be played with or without spectators, and still be financially viable.
Will it feel normal?
Probably not. Especially for the first half of this condensed season, anyway, when every weekend will feel like a Super Sunday.
But no one can complain, because there are no other netball nations in a position to get their leagues started again. England have cancelled their Superleague for 2020, and Australia’s Super Netball won’t start until August 1.
In a game of catch-up, the remaining 14 rounds of the season have been squished into 10 weeks, with games every weekend from Friday through Monday. Some Sundays have double-headers.
For the first month at least, all games will be played at one venue, the Auckland Netball Centre. The Pulse, Tactix and Steel will take chartered flights to Auckland every week.
The season ends with a triple-header finals series on August 23. The top two teams at the end of round-robin play will meet in the grand final; the other four play off for placings.
The games will be 12 minutes shorter than normal – with four 12-minute quarters – because of the intensified load on the players.
How many spectators?
The Auckland Netball Centre, in the eastern suburb of St Johns, can hold a crowd of just over 500 each day, which isn’t a lot. Tickets go on sale at midday on Wednesday, for the Sunday and Monday games.
How many venues?
So far, just the one. Netball NZ has been working with the franchises to see if they can financially and logistically host home games. So far, it’s looking positive for the second half of the competition to feature matches outside Auckland.
What’s the score?
The Pulse, Mystics and Magic were first-round winners before lockdown back in March, and the Stars snatched a bonus point for finishing within five of the Mystics in their opening clash. All of those points are carried over.
Who to look out for?
Defending champions, the Pulse, are still undoubtedly the strongest team in the league.
But the Tactix will be the fast improvers this season, with the big difference their two Silver Fern bookends - newcomer Te Paea Selby Rickit, and the returning Temalisi Fakahokotau. Look out for the Magic to be a more cohesive unit this season, too.
Players to watch?
Everyone wants to witness the growth of Grace Nweke – the tall and talented 18-year-old Mystics shooter who takes on a whole new level of responsibility as the most senior shooter in a very young attack.
The return of Stars captain Grace Kara, after having her son Agape, and Fa’amu Ioane, out for two years with a serious knee injury, boost the midcourt of the northern side. Their combination with Maia Wilson will be a highlight for last year’s finalists.
The Magic shooting combination of Abigail Latu-Meafoa and Kelsey McPhee began to gather momentum last season, so expect them to continue to forge their relationship. Especially with Monica Falkner’s return from injury prolonged
Wellington’s “Wall of Death” is back. In the 1990s, it was the formidable duo of Wai Taumaunu and Tanya Cox; in 2020, it’s Karin Burger, Katrina Rore and Kelly Jury. Expect it to be difficult for any opposing attack to penetrate.
Also on defence, the Tactix boast the keenly-awaited reunion of Jane Watson and Temalisi Fakahokotau, who will also rattle even the most solid shooting combos.
Look for White Fern Kate Heffernan to stamp her mark in the midcourt for the Steel (and confound the opposition when her twin, Georgia, is in the shooting circle).
Just in case you missed it…
Bailey Mes and Michaela Sokolich-Beatson are both out of the Mystics season recuperating from surgeries; Storm Purvis is back in the Stars after tidy-up knee surgery last summer; and Monica Falkner is out of the Magic, still recovering from her ACL surgery, but may be ready for the final rounds.
Rookies to look out for?
Steel defender Taneisha Fifita, who made the Southern Blast line-up at 15, has now made the Steel at 19. Her entire family have moved from Oamaru to Invercargill to help her transition into the top league.
Homegrown talent Jess Prosser was the second most accurate shooter in last year’s Beko League, and makes a step up into the Tactix.
Exceptional athlete Renee Savai’inaea, a national schools basketball and rugby champion, was in the Pulse squad two years ago as a defender, but went away, reinvented herself, and returns as a centre-wing defence.
For the Magic, it would have been Australian age group representative Georgia Marshall - if she’d been allowed in the country. The young shooter, who returned home to Sydney for lockdown, has been denied approval from NZ Immigration to return - four times so far.
Daystar Swift, Trinidad & Tobago’s experienced defender, brings her 1.91m height advantage to the Stars circle. She’s one of just two import players in this year’s league (the other is her Calypso Girls team-mate, shooter Kalifa McCollin, who’s joined the Steel).
Saviour Tui may be one of the brightest stars of the 2020 season. She’s fresh out of the Beko champion Central Manawa side, where she played two seasons while still at school in Wellington. Tui moved north this year to become part of the teenage shooting trio in the Mystics.
Who's playing this week?
Round two: Magic v Mystics, Friday 7pm; Steel v Tactix, Saturday 5pm; Stars v Pulse, Sunday 5pm; Stars v Tactix, Monday 7pm.
All games will be live on Sky Sport 3 (all Saturday games have been brought forward to 5pm to accommodate changes to the Super Rugby Aotearoa schedule).