Epic slugfest continues for NZ Breakers
Don't look now, but the Australian NBL season is about to start exactly how the last one finished - with the New Zealand Breakers and Perth Wildcats going toe-to-toe as one of the hottest rivalries in sport gets its latest instalment.
And for someone like hard- nosed Breakers forward Mika Vukona, arguably the most respected player in the entire league, it simply doesn't get any better than this.
It's fitting that the successful Kiwi club launch their bid for a threepeat with a re-match of last season's epic grand final series, where the Breakers outlasted the Cats 2-1 in a dramatic slugfest rated one of the finest in the league's history.
Hostilities will shift to the North Shore Events Centre because of scheduling issues with Auckland's Vector Arena, but the smaller venue won't lessen the edge as the men from the wild west seek early retribution against the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs two years running.
"It's good," said Vukona, practically licking his lips in anticipation.
"Both teams are going to pick up where the finals left off. They're going to come in where they think they should have won the finals.
"It's Perth, it's a great start. Who wouldn't want to start the season off like that against, supposedly, the best team in this league? It's going to set us up well for the start of season"
The Tall Blacks skipper is possibly being facetious labelling the Cats the 'best' team in the league, for his Breakers have assuredly earned that tag after two straight seasons where they've followed dominant minor premierships with championship banners.
But Perth are a team you can never keep down for long and they'll come to the NSEC for Friday's season opener in a typically buoyant and boisterous mood after an unbeaten pre-season. They are also incredibly settled, having lost only big man Luke Nevill from last season's roster, and replaced him from within by promoting Kiwi Jeremiah Trueman from their wider squad.
"They are still the team to beat," Vukona said. "Twenty-six consecutive years in the playoffs is unbelievable. You can't beat that. They deserve respect but not too much.
"They respect us a little bit and vice-versa. That's healthy as well. You don't want to be too lovey-dovey out there."
Lovey-dovey is certainly not a word you would associate with the Breakers-Cats rivalry. It's brutal, it's passionate and it's incredibly intense. Vukona's kind of tete-a- tete.
"That's what makes it such an awesome rivalry. There's definitely no love lost out there. We enjoy it and I can't wait.'
Vukona likes the look of a Breakers group that's also had minimal tinkering. Will Hudson brings his blue-collar, round-the-rim game in to replace the departed Gary Wilkinson who will be missed. But other than that it's business as usual for the champs who will raise their second championship banner on Friday night.
"Defensively, he's a monster out there," says Vukona of his new front-court mate.
"If he can relax and just play his game he's going to be great for us. We're going to miss Gary but what Will brings is totally different and, with Alex [Pledger] stepping up this year, it's going to be good.
"It's a new group, so the hunger is always going to be there. Everybody is talking about the threepeat.
"We want to go out there and prove that two years wasn't just a lucky thing.
"We want to show we're the best out there."
Sending the Wildcats home once again with their tails between their legs would be the best way possible to do that. Vukona is ready.
- © Fairfax NZ News