By Ian Harkin
A memorable ANZ Premiership season has come to an exciting climax with the Northern Mystics winning their first ever title, defeating Mainland Tactix 61-59 in a thrilling grand final in front of almost 5,000 fans in Auckland. Not only was it the Mystics’ first title, it was also the first win by an Auckland team in the 24 seasons of elite club netball in New Zealand. They were never headed at any stage during the entire sixty minutes. Tactix, who were also chasing their first national league title, trailed by three at quarter time, then drew level early in the second quarter, only for a series of turnovers to cruel them. Down by five at half time, a rejuvenated Tactix side reduced that to just two at the last break. They fought hard right to the very end, but ultimately came up just short.
Coming into the game, the grand final was seen by some as a battle between the attack of Mystics and the defence of Tactix. In the three previous encounters this season, Tactix’s outstanding defensive combination of Jane Watson and Karin Burger, had been largely taken out of the equation by the direct game plan of Mystics in attack. And that was true for a large portion of the grand final too. The spearhead of that Mystics’ attacking line is 19 year old goal shooter, Grace Nweke.
Nweke has proven to be almost unstoppable at times this year, and the decider was little different. She finished the game with 58 of Mystics’ 61 goals, at 94 percent. She was nothing if not consistent, sinking 15 goals in each of the first three quarters, before scoring another 13 in the last as her team held on. At 193cm, Nweke is taller than most defenders she comes up against, but height is not her only asset. She is incredibly strong in the air. Time after time in this game, Watson, or Burger, or both, went up for the ball, only to despair as Nweke plucked it out of the air and came down with it. So in control was she that on one occasion when Burger was able to gain possession from her, it came as a surprise. With Nweke’s dominance, Mystics’ two goal attacks, Filda Vui and Bailey Mes only played support roles, but they did this well.
It was Nweke’s partnership with exciting wing attack Peta Toeava (33 goal assists) that kept Mystics in charge for the majority of the match. The pair has an incredible, almost telepathic understanding on court and their partnership has been a major reason for Mystics’ success. Toeava is seemingly able to pinpoint passes at will to Nweke, no matter where she is on the court. And the young shooter does the rest. Toeava definitely had the better of Tactix wing defence, Charlotte Elley and was rewarded with the match MVP. She was playing with a bandaged left hand after injuring it badly at training the week before, but you would hardly have known. She had to leave the court in pain for a short period in the last quarter, replaced by Claire O’Brien. But she returned to see out the game.
Although they must have found it enormously frustrating, Watson and Burger never gave in at any stage, and were there ready to pounce on even the slightest opportunity. But they didn’t get many of those. Mystics ended the match with an astonishing centre pass to goal success rate of 88% (53 of 60). Given that statistic, Tactix did extremely well to get so close by capitalising on the gains they were able to get. The Auckland team’s quickfire attacking game plan has been so consistent (and effective) this year, the breakdown of time in possession has been identical in every single one of the four clashes between the two sides – Mystics 44% v Tactix 56%.
In stark contrast to their opposition, the Tactix shooting load was far more evenly shared, with Ellie Bird scoring 38 goals and Te Paea Selby-Rickit 21. Closely marked all game by Mystics captain Sulu Fitzpatrick, Bird found it hard to get free, and Selby-Rickit took it upon herself to get more involved in the scoring. Unfortunately, her accuracy wasn’t as good as it could have been for the first three quarters, but the Tactix goal attack still had a good game, with 20 assists, two deflections, five rebounds and 31 centre pass receives. Fitzpatrick and Kate Burley both did a great job of cutting off avenues to goal in the circle.
Tayla Earle and Kimiora Poi had a good battle at centre. For the most part, both players deferred to their wing attacks when it came to circle feeds. Samon Nathan and Erikana Pedersen shared the wing attack spot for Tactix and under pressure from Fa’amu Ioane, they were certainly unable to dominate as Toeava did for her side. A good indicator of the difference between the two sides was the total number of feeds. It took 107 feeds for Tactix to produce 59 goals, whereas it took just 70 feeds for Mystics’ total of 61.
Tactix coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek was philosophical after the match. She said that if the game had gone another couple of minutes, perhaps her team could have snatched it, but that they had made some silly errors in the second quarter which hurt them. It was Helene Wilson’s Mystics team which was in front when it mattered, and she will now be looking to build on this success. If she can keep the bulk of this team, particularly Fitzpatrick, Nweke and Toeava, Mystics will continue to be a force in years to come. Another important part of the jigsaw puzzle this year was assistant coach Rob Wright. His expertise has clearly proved invaluable.
It must also be remembered that Mystics achieved this success without two absolute top-line defenders in Phoenix Karaka (pregnancy) and Michela Sokolich-Beatson (injury). Will they be part of the Mystics line up next year? There is a gap to fill now as Burley has just signed with Steel for 2022. Yes, that’s right. The recruiting process for next year’s ANZ Premiership has already begun.
SILVER FERNS SQUAD ANNOUNCED
Two days after the grand final was decided, Noeline Taurua’s Silver Ferns squad was announced for 2021/22 and unsurprisingly, Grace Nweke’s name was there. She is one of four new players in the squad. Two other shooters also earned their first call up; the Stars’ Jamie Hume and Tiana Metuarau from the Steel. Meanwhile Metuarau’s teammate, Kate Heffernan is a new addition to the midcourt. Fresh from her MVP performance in the grand final, Peta Toeava also earned a recall after previously getting a small taste of test netball in 2018.
The Constellation Cup is scheduled for October with two matches in New Zealand and two in Australia. There is also the strong possibility of a series against the England Roses. Three training camps will be held in the coming weeks leading up to a final Silver Ferns team being named and a captain chosen. Along with the Silver Ferns squad announcement, a further nine players were named in the development squad. They are Monica Falkner, Filda Vui, Whitney Souness, Kimiora Poi, Mila Reuelu-Buchanan, Paris Lokotui, Kate Burley, Oceane Maihi and Georgia Tong.