Cullen's substitution swings netball final
Kayla Cullen's cramping calf turned into an achilles heel for the Northern Mystics as the trans-Tasman netball championship's young player of the year's substitution swung the grand final's momentum in favour of the peerless Queensland Firebirds.
Cullen entered the pinnacle of her fledgling career under an injury cloud and a gamble by head coach Debbie Fuller to the bench the defender early in the third term inspired the Firebirds to a comfortable 57-44 victory.
The 19-year-old needed treatment on the troublesome muscle when the Firebirds led by three and when she was pressed back into service five minutes later the title favourite's advantage had ballooned to eight.
Cullen and Anna Scarlett already had their work cut out combating player of the match Romelda Aiken and before a defensive rejig that unfortunately exposed Rachel Rasmussen.
Until the personnel changes - Scarlett also had a brief absence in the penultimate quarter - the Mystics had defied the critics to hold the unbeaten Firebirds for half the contest.
They trailed by two at the main break but the disruption in their defensive circle proved terminal as the Firebirds became the first franchise in history to complete a season unbeaten.
Fuller said she faced a conundrum with Cullen - replace her with a view to reintroducing her in the fourth quarter or push her to the brink.
"There was fatigue leading into the third quarter and we knew Kayla's calf and the cramping would probably hit about then," she said.
"We were managing that and as a result there was a five minute slide when they attacked. They took advantage of that situation and we'd do the same."
The Firebirds could scarcely believe how quickly an evenly-matched duel turned into a romp. By three-quarter time they lead by 12 goals and went one better by the final whistle.
"I was surprised to be honest," said goal attack Natalie Medhurst.
"They did rejig it (defence) and it was great because it opened up Romelda a lot more - she was a lot easier to spot up against."
The Jamaican netted 35 from 40 to ensure Australian extended their domination of the ANZ championship, her rival goal shoot Cathrine Latu shot the perfect game but was restricted to 21.
"Romelda is a huge target to shut down and she's only going to get better," Fuller feared.
"She's so young. Every team is going to be looking for a six foot four goal keeper maybe."
Mystics captain Temepara George agreed Cullen's absence changed the course of the final, although the Firebirds midcourt and the Laura Geitz-led defensive unit were also dominant after halftime.
But she also felt the score was not a fair reflection of the Mystics' effort and the team should still be proud of making their first grand final.
"It's really gutting but when you stand there and think of where we've come from and where we are at this stage, I think we've done really well," she said.
Fuller was also proud of her squad.
"In other grand finals, the result's been known in the first quarter. The fact the team was able to hold them out for the first half was a sign of these guys' commitment."