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Innovators and achievers

written by Damien Stannard

To some, it was a no-brainer.

For others the ANZ Championship was a nervous expedition into the unknown, towards a destination very few could imagine.

Almost a decade after the launch of the Trans-Tasman Netball League, the competition has become an established feature of the sporting landscape, a household name that defers to no other women’s league on the planet.

To arrive at this point the competition and its participants had to dare and deliver.

Powered by inspiration, ingenuity, skill and sweat, these are the characters and moments that helped transform the ANZ Championship into a dynamic and engaging beast on the sporting landscape.

Ground zero

A then record crowd of 12,099 for the 2008 Grand Final was living proof netball was ready for a trans-Tasman juggernaut.

Five clubs each from Australia and New Zealand realised almost instantly how cut-throat was the four-team finals system, how much harder it was to win the crown and how fervent were the fans.

“We knew netball had a good product on its hands and were amazed it hadn’t happened sooner,” said Catherine Cox who was grand final player of the match in the NSW Swifts’ 65-56 win against the Magic.

Imports

A cosmopolitan approach not only enabled teams to fill deficiencies on their rosters, but to also inject a little spice into the trans-Tasman rivalry.

Fielding imports was an instant hit, with Jamaican Romelda Aiken and English defender Sonia Mkoloma sharing the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award in its foundation year.

They were the trailblazers, and, along with Geva Mentor, they would become some of the most celebrated contributors to the Championship.

“I had no idea what I was in for,” Aiken said. “But I just wanted to see the other side of the world.

“All of a sudden I was two days away from home, not two hours.”

That early success encouraged other coaches to scan the globe for imports, and since then Malawi’s Mwai Kumwenda, Jhaniele Fowler-Reid (Jamaica) and Jo Harten (England) have made enormous contributions.

Undefeated Birds

The Queensland Firebirds’ undefeated surge to the 2011 title had journalists and fans comparing their sequence to the winning streaks of some of the world’s greatest sporting teams.

Those who played in that historic grand final against the Northern Mystics remember it, not so much for the glory, but for the effort required to sustain such success.

“It was not until the following year, when we did not make finals, that I realised just how hard it is to make a grand final,” captain Laura Geitz told the Firebirds’ website.

First Kiwi success

They were so powerful from day one, but it was not until 2012 that the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic delivered on their potential to become the first Kiwi side to win the title.

Led by Silver Ferns greats Irene van Dyk, Laura Langman, Leana de Bruin and Casey Kopua, they scraped into third place on percentage and had to survive two sudden death finals before upsetting home town favourites the Vixens in the season climax.

“I used to think to win a premiership everything had to be smooth sailing,” Langman said.

“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions. We had so many lumps and bumps that year.

“So I think you need those to find out what sort of heart you’ve got and learn how to react to what’s in front of you.”

Chairlift

Also known as the “Harrison hoist”, no other moment generated the same wave of debate as this masterstroke from Northern Mystics coach Debbie Fuller.

Noting both the rising height of shooters and the dazzling athleticism of Anna Harrison, Fuller wondered whether lifting a defender into the air, rugby lineout-style, would effectively and legally block shots.

So Fuller and her defenders tinkered and practised for a month before successfully unleashing the stunning manoeuvre in a 2012 game against the Vixens.

“It had to be a light, athletic defender – Anna was the perfect prototype – it had to be fluent, and safety was paramount,” Fuller said.

“A lot of analysis, too, went into the shooters, and when and how often we did it.”

Hoopla

Few players can say they changed the game.

Former basketballer Gretel Tippett is only three seasons into her elite career and already she has shaped the way shooters and defenders approach their craft.

Defenders are now wiser to her hoops-style lay-ups and jump passes. That her shooting peers copied the lay-ups and defenders think harder about the match-up is a credit to the netball rookie. 

“She’s all legs and she’s able to use that basketball background and that finger roll,” said her partner-in-crime Aiken.

The rookies

Adelaide Thunderbird Kristina Brice has some big shoes to fill as the 2016 Best New Talent and, based on the award’s history, she will rise to the top of the game.

Rookies and young players have delivered some of the championship’s finest performances, and this season’s award could just as easily have been handed to Maia Wilson or Maddy Turner.

Over the years Madi Robinson, Sharni Layton, Kayla Cullen and Kim Ravaillion have made sudden impacts on the competition before developing into some of its brightest stars.

“The beauty of Kayla was, she’s an athlete. She was faster and could jump higher,” Fuller said.

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