Without de Bruin, Steel needs new strategy

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 23:16 26/06/2011

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OPINION: News this week Leana de Bruin will play for the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic is a serious blow to Southern Steel's 2012 hopes, writes Nathan Burdon in this week's Straight Up.

Not only was she one of just two current Silver Ferns on the Steel roster, she was comfortably the team's best player, justifiably sharing the MVP honours with Queensland Firebirds player Natalie Medhurst.

Almost immediately after the de Bruin departure was announced, criticism was flowing in the direction of Steel and its chief executive Julie Paterson.

It's difficult to see just what the franchise could have done differently, however.

The lanky New Zealand representative stated publicly that family was a big reason for wanting to be closer to her Cambridge base.

It was a wrench for de Bruin to leave her 20-month-old son when she went into camp with the Silver Ferns last week and it's understood that has had a big bearing on her decision.

Where rugby, for instance, is a young man's game, top level netball is increasingly played by mums. The professional game has encouraged players to postpone retirement or come back after having children because there is some reasonable money on the table.

Having spoken to some people behind the scenes, it appears Steel were able to put together an attractive package for de Bruin which included accommodation and childcare services.

We don't know what money was being offered, but it doesn't take an accountant to work out that de Bruin would have been Steel's highest-paid player. At the Magic she will probably be fourth in a queue which includes Silver Ferns captain Casey Williams, Irene van Dyk and Laura Langman.

If it was about money, de Bruin would undoubtedly be coming back to Invercargill next year.

The trans-Tasman competition needs to reassess its salary cap.

There are two reasons for a cap – to stop franchises burning money to chase a title and to spread talent around the teams. But with the Pulse, Magic, Tactix, and (to a lesser extent) Steel struggling financially and the majority of Silver Ferns living in Auckland or Hamilton, the cap is failing badly.

The only answer is to lower it, or make it more stringent.

If Steel can't retain a player like de Bruin, how can they hope to be competitive? The answer lies in good long-term planning.

Every effort must be put into developing players in the Steel region. No player should fall through the cracks.

Locally-developed players will be more loyal to the franchise and the fans will feel closer to a team which is made up of their own.

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At the same time Steel coaches Janine Southby and Natalie Avellino have access to the New Zealand under-21 and secondary schools teams.

They must aggressively recruit from the junior ranks and bring south players who are keen to make a name for themselves.

As other franchises are dominated by ageing players keen to maximise their earning potential, Steel can snap up youngsters wanting court time.

Magic defender Sulu Tone-Fitzpatrick, the New Zealand under-21 captain who will be displaced by de Bruin, is a perfect example.

The Steel franchise must also sell their strategy to the public.Not just tell them, but make them believe.

And then they have to deliver.

A fresh, young squad needs to be competitive and innovative from the beginning. It needs to challenge for the semifinals in its second season and win the competition in its third or fourth.

It's ambitious, and it might not even be achievable but if the franchise even came close to meeting those targets it would be a success. Without this sort of daring approach the franchise's future looks bleak.

» Nathan Burdon has been the Southland Times sports editor since 2003 and has won numerous journalism awards, including provincial sports writer of the year.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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