By Ian Harkin
There are just two rounds left in the ANZ Premiership before the finals begin. At this stage, there are four teams still in contention. Round 13 saw the ladder really take shape and it began on Friday with a match postponed from round 11. In what was a close, tense battle all night, Tactix just managed to get over the top of the Pulse, effectively snuffing out the chances of the defending premiers making it three titles in a row. Coming into the game, Tactix would have been hoping for a more comfortable victory, but the home side took it right up to them.
Trailing by five midway through the last quarter, Pulse piled on five straight goals to tie the match up and make for a dramatic finish. But Tactix was able to steady under pressure in the final moments and scored the final three goals of the game. Karin Burger had another strong game in defence for the winners, while Ellie Bird was once again the focal point up front, scoring 41 goals. She was well fed by shooting partner Te Paea Selby-Rickit and wing attack Samon Nathan, while Aliyah Dunn and captain Claire Kersten were among the best for Pulse.
Having come so close in the opening game on Friday night, Pulse backed up on Sunday afternoon against Magic and came away with a four goal win. On so many occasions this season, Magic have been competitive for three quarters, but outplayed in another, costing them any chance of victory. And so it was again. Having gone in at quarter time with the score at 15-15, Pulse won the second term 16-9 and effectively took control of the game from there. It was the only quarter they won in the game, but it was enough to consign Magic to another defeat.
Wing attack Whitney Souness starred for Pulse with 23 assists and 26 centre pass receives, shooter Aliyah Dunn capped off her good work with 41 goals, and as per usual, Claire Kersten led the side well in the midcourt. Meanwhile, it was the defensive effort of the whole Pulse team in that second quarter that proved the difference. Magic won the third quarter by one and the fourth quarter by two, but it wasn’t enough. Once again, captain Sam Winders was one of the best for the losing team. She gives a hundred percent each and every week.
In what was perhaps a preview of a future encounter in the playoffs, Southern Steel toppled the ladder-leading Northern Mystics in Invercargill. It was a tight game all night, with Steel just prevailing by three goals and moving up to 27 points on the competition ladder.
Match report – Steel v Mystics
By Andrew Kennedy
In a spookily even match, stats analysis gave few hints as to who had ascendancy in Invercargill in round 13. Mystics had won by six in round two in Auckland, while Steel prevailed by five in round seven in the same venue. Now they were in Stadium Southland and fighting for Georgie Salter memorial trophy, Steel had that extra passion from a home crowd, causing at times confusion and deflation in their opponents. The smarts and variety of Steel were the difference in the end, protecting a small early lead for 55 minutes and moving from fourth to third on the ladder with their ninth win of 2021.
It was all class from Tiana Metuarau, improving with each outing this year in her timing, calmness, judgement, leadership, and accuracy. Nailing 22 goals at 85%, she still almost outdid her midcourters for assists, and committed only four turnovers. The young goal attack was particularly good at deception, or identifying when her shooter was double-teamed. She and Saunders had cunning setups for midcourt intercepts and deflections that are hard to recognise for defenders bringing the ball through.
Both teams had an amazing conversion rate. When combining accuracy with rebounds, they both managed a 95% success at goal. Nweke featured with five rebounds out of her seven misses.
The feature of Steel’s climb up the ladder is their adaptability and unpredictability in attack. Each of their players has three or more different ideas to use, and they change them at the right time to squash a rebellion from the opponent, whilst communicating and lifting each other. Some of the smartest plays are – Fisher relinquishing the front and protecting a pass across to a feeder in the pocket; Metuarau cutting herself into front space not just with a split but with a leap; Saunders varying from instinctual flair to measured play; Heffernan driving middle, or hanging very wide to use her height.
It also cannot be denied, Grace Nweke is a powerhouse target who cannot be stopped with the right feed – in her case, it is to drop down from quite a height on top of her head, in a space within a metre. The young shooter herself has learned over recent years that mobility over 1.5 metres is enough. She is quick and economical, and she definitely shows her feeders where to go.
By the same token, George Fisher has her unique holding style, with a large split and long agile reach, making life equally difficult for defenders. Even better though is her ability to protect a ball across the circle to a feeder, cleanly holding off the body of a defender, creating mountains of space and stretching way out of reach. Fitzpatrick and her teammates failed to challenge this agility and Fisher shot 39/41 at 95%.
Neither circle defence was able to threaten the potent attack lines. At least, the injection of Ama Agbeze at goal keeper for Mystics was smart, but came too late. Replacing Burley, the former England captain was clearly tasked to challenge the front ball to Metuarau but also immediately retreat for the front ball to Fisher, which created hesitancy and a small amount of possession. Greater use of the bench could benefit Mystics in the next few weeks.
WHAT needs improvement?
Both wing attacks had too many errors, seven each, although the manner was quite different. Steel captain Saunders tended to have the pressure put on her by challenging passes, whereas Mystics lynchpin Toeava made errors in catch, or the execution, choice, and timing of pass. It’s the contrast between the steady buildup of Steel, versus the flair of Mystics and their assumption that Nweke will always pull a ball in.
The defenders did an acceptable job but failed to adapt on their own. Mystics suffered when the taller Fitzpatrick was often caught near the circle edge, and Burley was frequently exposed on a height mismatch against Fisher. At the other end, Fifita got stuck on the body of Nweke, in almost the right position, but often jumping from side or facing backwards. She will need get space and face the ball to catch the feeds that drop short in the finals.
Mystics need to make the right changes in their goal attack position as the game flows. In this game, Mes had 24 minutes and plenty of goal assists but too many turnovers, only 2/3 goals, and crowded the space of Toeava. Vui for her 34 minutes had 6/6 and fewer assists, but let wing attack Toeava shine with electric double-plays. Which reins are pulled against which team will dictate whether the Northerners struggle or succeed at the business end of the season.
WHERE was it won?
The Steel have taken a while to find their feet in this season, having had worries over concussion to shooter George Fisher since the round 10 match against Stars. The need for Saunders and Metuarau to connect, lift and direct play without the English import may have boosted the confidence of the Southerners. Now Fisher can just focus on doing her job within the circle, as the front four reliably convert possession. It was also in the variety of attack for Steel that made it tricky for Mystics to disrupt that is pleasing for the hosts.
WHERE was it lost?
This was one of the tightest matches of the year – the three-goal lead was established for Steel when Metuarau nicely sunk a mid-range shot after 4:45 in the first quarter. That margin played through to the end of the game, despite runs from both teams. It demonstrated that a few minutes of lapsed attention at literally any time could cost the match, and thereby, a place in the finals.
Neither team really had a solution for the outstanding shooting performances. Gains by defenders for Mystics were six, and for Steel only seven, disappointingly low for each lineup. Sixty-minute execution of a better plan to disrupt a target shooter and their feeders is critical for finals, in a league with Fisher, Nweke, Bird, Wilson, Dunn, and Bassett.
Steel: GS Fisher, GA Metuarau, WA Saunders, C Heffernan, WD Savai’inaea, GD Selby-Rickit, GK Fifita
Mystics: GS Nweke, GA Mes, WA Toeava, C Earle, WD Ioane, GD Burley, GK Fitzpatrick
The final match of the round turned into somewhat of an anti-climax. Stars were comfortably beaten by Tactix and fell out of the top three for the first time all year. The story of the game was the one-sided contest between the Tactix defence and the Stars attack, most notably their captain and goal shooter, Maia Wilson. An out of sorts Wilson struggled and turned in surely one of the worst performances of her career. She was completely dominated by the outstanding Tactix defensive duo of Karin Burger and Jane Watson.
In what must be some sort of record, Burger finished with 12 gains and Watson 10 as they shut Stars out of the game. Other top performers for Tactix were Ellie Bird with 44 goals and Te Paea Selby-Rickit with 30 assists. This win takes them up to second on the ladder, a fine effort after losing their first three matches in 2021. But where to now for Stars? They, and Wilson, will have to rebound very quickly if they are to be any hope of making the playoffs. It’s a situation that nobody would have thought possible when they won their first five matches of the year.
Sunday, Jul 11
4:15pm – Magic v Tactix
6:15pm – Pulse v Mystics
Monday, Jul 12
7:15pm – Stars v Steel