The mood seemed pretty light at Central Pulse training last week.
Effectively out of the race for the trans-Tasman Netball League semifinals, that appeared to be a relief as much as anything.
Expectation has sat poorly with the Pulse. The better they ought to play, the worse they seemed to.
In 12 starts this year, they've performed somewhere near their potential in only three of them. They were good enough to have beaten the Adelaide Thunderbirds first-up, then were shamed into producing some decent netball in their two victories over the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic.
They'd been ordinary in the buildup to both Magic games and would have been open to ridicule had they meekly succumbed to New Zealand's top franchise. The jokes eventually came in round 13, after the Queensland Firebirds blew the Pulse out of the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Which brings us to Challenge Stadium, Perth. Tonight's clash with the West Coast Fever is right up the Pulse's street.
Everyone expects them to lose and probably by a sizeable margin. They're the kind of circumstances in which the Pulse find it easier to go out and play properly.
It'd be just like them to surrender a semifinal berth in shameful fashion, then turn round and do something history-making, like winning in Australia for the first time.
They tease you, the Pulse. They dangle title-winning credentials in front of you, then throw them away like the countless errant passes that have scuppered their season.
At some point in their history, the Pulse have to learn to embrace pressure. Not just in the big games, but the small ones too.
The Pulse never put a bad team away by 20 or 30 goals. It's happened to them a time or two, but they've never inflected that kind of beating themselves.
They'll get 10 or 12 goals up, heave a huge sigh of relief at having avoided any potential embarrassment and try to coast home from there. That attitude means their goal differential is an issue season after season.
With the Firebirds having relieved them of the burden of playing for a playoff spot, the team's spirits looked to have lifted. They shouldn't have. The Pulse need only gaze in the direction of the Southern Steel for a reason why.
The Jhaniele Fowler-Reid led side is, by miles, the highest-scoring team in the competition. On Saturday they put 65 goals past an all-conquering Melbourne Vixens team that the Pulse could only post 40 against.
The Steel's win means they've beaten three Australian franchises this season, to the Pulse's none. Yet, in their two defeats to the Pulse, the Steel mustered just 56 and 54 goals.
Those figures don't add up, except in the sense that the Pulse knew they could beat the Steel and would. Against Australian opposition, the Pulse can't cope with the intensity.
But if the Steel can do it, the Pulse have to do it tonight too. Otherwise their season can only be regarded as a failure.
- The Dominion Post
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