The 2022 ANZ Premiership looks, on paper, to be the strongest year for the competition so far. In a critical netball year, the tough competition will develop New Zealand’s netball depth to build a strong 2022 Commonwealth Games side. Tobias Keddy looks at six talents that can be game-changers for their respective teams in the 2022 season.
The competition starts in Hamilton, where last year’s champions, the Northern Mystics, go up against the wooden spooners, the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic. This game kicks off a weekend of solid netball competition, proving that New Zealand will be a big competitor in Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games.
The six players profiled may not be the team’s number one star or their captain, but each is crucial to starting their team’s season off as contenders. Each player has a lot to prove and will be in the mix when it comes to creating a Silver Ferns or international side for the 2022 pinnacle event.
Northern Mystics: Monica Falkner
Monica Falkner has had a tough couple of years with injuries, after a severe knee injury pulled her out of the 2020 season and continued niggles in the 2021 season saw her get limited game-time at the Northern Stars. However, 2022 is a season where Falkner can return to international form.
When Falkner is healthy, she is an unguardable talent that creates a strategic headache for her opposition. Falkner moves the ball seamlessly down the court with little turnover ball. Her new coach Helene Wilson noted that, “Monica’s court craft, ability to read play and the silky thread between her and the midcourt has been exciting to watch”.
What is most exciting is that Falkner isn’t afraid to shoot. The Mystics have Grace Nweke, who shot 852 goals last season, more than 200 goals ahead of her nearest rival. However, the Mystics seem to over-rely on Nweke’s shooting ability which teams will defensively look to shut down this season. The over-reliance saw their goal attacks from last year in Filda Vui and Bailey Mes only score 132 goals. Falkner will be essential for the Mystics to increase the goal attack volume by having a second shooting option, as she was a prolific shooter in her last full season, scoring 246 goals at 79.4% in 2019.
Taking the shooting weight off Nweke is crucial for the Mystics to succeed. It will create more space for both shooters and will force their defensive opposition not to solely focus their efforts on Nweke. If the defence decides to leave Falkner alone in the circle, she will confidently shoot from anywhere in the goal circle.
This season is vital for Monica Falkner to show that she can be in the Silver Ferns environment again. In a year where she gets to work in combination with the next rising star of netball, she has the opportunity to develop a combination that will forever change the game of netball. If done right, their defensive opposition will not know what to do against them. A sharpshooter in Falkner and an unstoppable tall timber in Nweke should be impossible to disrupt.
Robinhood Stars: Kayla Johnson
After two years away from the elite netball scene, foundational Northern Stars member Kayla Johnson is back on the court. After the birth of her child, Johnson returned to netball during the 2022 Quad Series for the Silver Ferns. She was in solid form, getting five defensive gains against the two top nations, the Australian Diamonds and England Roses.
Expect Johnson to pick up where she left off in the Quad Series and be a necessary ball-winner for the Northern Star’s success. Johnson reads her opposition so well, giving her the ability to understand when she can intercept or pick up the ball. It is whether Kiri Wills decides to put her in the goal circle or at wing defence. I believe that Johnson can have more room to hunt for the ball as a goal defender, with the added security that the legendary Anna Harrison will stabilise the defensive end as the goalkeeper. But if you want to break down the opponent’s defence, having Johnson’s 1.83m stature in wing defence means she can pressure the midcourt’s feeding ability into their shooters. She is a versatile defender who will significantly impact wherever coach Wills puts her.
Johnson is also an exceptional attacking player. Coach Kiri Wills highlights that Johnson is strong at, “transitioning the ball out of the defensive end and quickly (gets it) down to the attack”. This is something that the Stars needed to be more consistent with during last season. Trying to achieve a stronger transition attack saw Coach Wills conflicted about positioning Anna Harrison, who can effectively do this as their goal defence. However, Harrison was more effective when disrupting the flow of the ball going into the tall goal shooters in the goalkeeper position. Johnson and potential wing defender Holly Fowler eliminate this headache for Coach Wills as she notes that both are, “great at attacking the ball forward”.
Johnson brings various skills that will be an opposition nightmare when reunited with defender Harrison from their Mystics days. In order to change a game, Johnson needs to continue hunting for the ball and have a solid offensive drive down the court. All teams desire these skills, so Johnson must use them carefully to continue her excellent form from the Silver Ferns and be a defensive headache.
Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic: Claire Kersten
During the Quad Series 2022, Kersten cemented her spot as one of New Zealand’s strongest centre and wing defence options. By moving from a Central Pulse side that she has been a mainstay of since 2014, Kersten joins her biggest rival for game time on the international stage, long term Magic midcourter and 2021 Silver Fern of the year, Sam Winders. This combination has the potential to be a midcourt, defensive nightmare.
While starting as a wing defence for the Pulse, Claire Kersten has seen significant development in her attacking game over the last couple of years. This has seen Kersten be in the top 10 in feeds since the 2019 season. Kersten uses her footwork and speed to get onto the circle edge, creating easier passing access to her shooters. Kersten also is a confident feeder meaning that she knows when the pass needs to go in or will play the ball around to avoid creating turnovers and bad passes to her shooters.
For a Magic side that was consistently creating turnovers, Kersten’s feeding experience will be crucial for ball retention and clever passing to her shooters. Kersten benefits from having familiar international shooter Bailey Mes and previous Pulse shooter Amelieranne Ekenasio joining the Magic this season. These are players she has fed before, so her adjustment to enter a new side will be more seamless. For a team without a specific and experienced wing attack option, look for Kersten to be the backbone of giving good quality ball into the Magic shooters.
As previously mentioned, the combination of Claire Kersten and Sam Winders is the most exciting combination of the competition. Both are great feeders, defensive ball-winners and will fight to the very end. For a team that tended to get tired last season, Winders kept her side rolling through her determination. Winders noted that getting a consistent combination with Kersten early in the season by building upon what they developed during the Quad Series is vital for the Magic this year. It will be interesting to see where each player will play as both are strong. For Kersten to have a significant impact, placing her in the centre position means more effective feeding and will allow Sam Winders more energy to hunt the ball down.
Central Pulse: Tiana Metuarau
I believe it is fair to declare that Tiana Metuarau was last year’s most improved player. Joining the Southern Steel side for 2021, Metuarau used her increased game time to become a dynamic shooter who took every chance with the ball to command and make brilliant offensive plays. She was last season’s most accurate goal attack, scoring 221 goals at 81%, top-five in centre pass receives and top-ten in feeds.
The dynamic shooter was also a defensive menace picking up 23 defensive gains. The 21-year-old is a player who can dictate the winner of the game with the ball in hand. Returning to her foundation team, Metuarau is a vastly different player than when she wore the yellow dress in 2020. 2022 is about proving last year wasn’t a fluke and that she can still be just as dominant.
Her combination with Ailyah Dunn will be crucial for Pulse’s success. Both Dunn and Metuarau are two young players who now have significant experience on a domestic and international stage. Dunn is a tall timber under the post that offers great circle spacing and accurate shooting, averaging 90% in 2021. Metuarau needs to open the feeding lines to allow easy access into Dunn for this pairing to succeed.
Metuarau’s courtcraft and her ability to draw the defence towards the play should open and create more apparent feeding lines into Dunn. Coach Yvette McCausland-Durie noted that the combination is, “Sometimes exciting and sometimes it is hair-raising”. Both are dynamic players with silky skills that come with their energetic playing style. The combination needs to control their movement, open the circle up, and shoot accurately to be effective this season.
Mainland Tactix: Kelera Nawai-Caucau
The Tactix have lost their defensive lynchpin for the 2022 season as their former captain, Jane Watson, is out due to pregnancy. While many teams would go into panic mode, Coach Marianne Delaney Hoshek recruited Central Pulse standout Kerala Nawai-Caucau. She will need to be a strong backbone for the defensive end to give their star player Karin Burger the freedom to hunt for the ball.
The Fijian Defender had a standout 2021 season. Partnering with Silver Fern Kelly Jury, Nawai-Caucau used her power and height to pick up plenty of defensive ball. She was third in rebounds, fifth in intercepts and top-ten in deflections. Being that dominant in her first season, she raised heads as to why she was suddenly not included in the Central Pulse lineup for 2022 and beyond. However, she returns to her beginnings in New Zealand netball down in Christchurch.
Last season, the Tactix had two of New Zealand’s best defenders in the competition. Karin Burger raised her game to become one of the world’s greatest players alongside Jane Watson, who has cemented herself as a New Zealand legend. Both defenders were in the top 2 for deflections, and Burger was first in intercepts with 48 and second in defensive rebounds with 27. However, they lacked a taller defender to be physically imposing against shooters like Grace Nweke, which allowed easier access into the circle and saw them struggle to get the all-important rebounds.
Nawai-Caucau’s 187cm stature, long arms and great defensive awareness will become crucial to take them to the next step. The Tactix have had a similar lineup in the last two seasons that saw them make the Grand Final in 2020 and 2021, losing on both occasions. I believe that if Burger and Nawai-Caucau can create a compelling combination, similar to the Jury-Burger combination in the Silver Ferns, expect increased defensive ball gains and for them to go one further in 2022.
Southern Steel: Saviour Tui
I believe that if Saviour Tui steps up to the plate in 2022, the Southern Steel will make the grand final in 2022. That is a lot of pressure for a player that Coach Reinga Bloxham calls a lot quieter than her other players. However, if she can be a consistent player who shoots around 20 goals a game, you have a talented attacking line.
Saviour Tui is a player with a lot of potential, who received a lot of game time for the Northern Mystics in 2020 due to the injury of Bailey Mes. She demonstrated her ability to shoot the ball accurately and under pressure, feed a tall timber in Grace Nweke and overall athleticism to jump high for the ball. However, when Mes returned and Filda Vui showed her impressive game in 2021, the Northern Mystics only played Tui for 14 minutes throughout the entire 2021 season. The goal attack opening that Tiana Metuarau left open has given Tui a fantastic opportunity to improve her game.
Tui needs to improve on her play from the 2020 season. Her new shooting partner, George Fisher, combines the brilliance of Tui’s previous shooters in Nweke and Mes into one package. Fisher is a tall shooter who thrives in a moving circle that sees her create space to receive the ball. Fisher will allow Tui to have a lot of open space to receive the ball and shoot confidently, knowing a strong offensive rebounder is under the post. While both are under-25, this young circle needs to create chemistry early. They both have worked in young pairings before, creating a lot of success in them. Now they need to do it together.
Tui has moved to a team that will support her game development. Shannon Saunders is one of the world’s best wing attacks. She is a great leader that will allow Tui to move the ball confidently around the court. Saunders’ experience sees her play with flair and confidence in moving the ball around to get it inside the shooting circle. Tui will be the beneficiary of Saunder’s play, and it will take massive playmaking responsibility off of her.
Last season, the Steel environment provided a young Tiana Metuarau with a similar development opportunity. While Metuarau already had the skills necessary to be a great player, she just needed a team that would give on-court experience to show her fantastic ability. For Tui, the Steel environment will provide something completely different. Experience at the next level is crucial for the 20-year-old to grow her netball talent. She will gain confidence in all facets, including playmaking and shooting.
Coach Reinga Bloxham may not have it as easy with Tui as she did with Metuarau, but what Bloxham can do is mould a player with a lot of potential into the player needed for her team. A shooter who can take the shooting load off Fisher, open the feeding lines, and take some of the playmaking responsibility off Saunders. If Tui can achieve this, the Steel will be in the Grand Final this year.