Magic coach looking for happy homecoming

GOING HOME: Magic coach Julie Fitzgerald comes up against her old team in Sydney tomorrow.
GOING HOME: Magic coach Julie Fitzgerald comes up against her old team in Sydney tomorrow.

Julie Fitzgerald will be forgiven if she walks into the wrong changing room tomorrow.

After 15 years at the helm of the Swifts, the new Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic coach needs to find her way to the door labelled "visitors" at the Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre.

Sydney-born and raised, Fitzgerald led the Swifts to four national championships, before claiming the inaugural trans-Tasman league title in 2008 with victory over the Magic. In her decade and a half in charge, Fitzgerald's teams made all but one of the playoffs.

But come the end of the 2011 season, she was culled, with Netball NSW chief executive Carolyn Campbell asking for expressions of interest from others.

Campbell is still at the helm, but Fitzgerald holds no resentment.

"Not at all. I was lucky enough to coach the Swifts for 15 years. And I think very, very few people are privileged to have a team for that long. And the fact that NSW wanted a change, I think, is more than understandable.

"And I think it was a really good thing for me, the couple of years I spent at the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport, in Canberra] really refreshed me and gave me a different viewpoint on things."

Now Fitzgerald is looking for a return on her fine early season work, having moulded a new-look side into a competitive one.

The Magic, Swifts and the Melbourne Vixens are all tied on 16 points at the top of the table, so this game is huge in terms of pushing towards the 1 v 2 major semifinal.

Fitzgerald, however, is putting the focus squarely on getting to the playoffs.

"It's a big game for us if we want to make the four, that's all we're worried about at the moment, getting in the semis, we don't care where," she said.

While Fitzgerald will have the Sydney crowd against her for the first time, she will have friends and all her family there - bar daughter Kristie, who is in Perth and has recently had a baby. Fitzgerald will fly there after the match, returning on a Tuesday night flight.

Although excited about this trip across the Tasman, Fitzgerald hasn't actually put much thought into coming up against her old side, with her noting there were very few players left there from her era.

Of the current Swifts squad, Fitzgerald coached Carla Dziwoki for one year and Sonia Mkoloma for two, but the two she knows most about are Kimberlee Green and Susan Pratley.

"It's like anything, I think they're games have moved on," Fitzgerald said of the duo. "Certainly Susan's playing some of the best netball I've ever seen her play and Kim Green gets better every year."

Fitzgerald rated the Swifts and Vixens as the benchmarks for the competition, both having "very few weak links".

The Swifts are on a four-game winning run, coming off a 45-42 home victory over the Adelaide Thunderbirds, while the Magic took a lot of confidence from their thumping of the Mainland Tactix - their 74 goals being the most they have scored in the history of the competition.

"We not only needed to win but we needed to play well in winning, and I think there were patches in that game that were very good. Some of our attack, I thought, was the best that we've produced this year," Fitzgerald said, adding that she would "probably" revert to the usual combination of Jo Harten at goal shoot and Ellen Halpenny at goal attack, despite having seen a successful switch in the second half against the Tactix.

While beating the Australian sides has usually been the toughest element for New Zealand teams in this competition, the Magic are three from three in that department this season. And it can't be just a coincidence that Fitzgerald is an Aussie. However, she played down her impact.

"Obviously I know the Australian players well and I probably know the coaches over there well as well. But our team played particularly well in some of those games, which I think is far more important than any knowledge I might have."

Her match up on the sideline tomorrow will also be an interesting facet, coming up against first-year coach Rob Wright, who was Fitzgerald's assistant in 2010 and 2011 and comes from her home association.

"I've known Rob for more years than I care to mention," Fitzgerald quipped.

Waikato Times