Welcome signs but Steel a work in progress
On the precipice of the 2013 season, the Southern Steel had targeted a top six finish in the trans-Tasman netball competition.
After a difficult 2012 season under co-coaches Janine Southby and Natalie Avellino, during which the Steel managed only two wins and only avoided the wooden spoon thanks to a superior goal differential over the Tactix, there was good cause to worry about a team which had lost Donna Wilkins, its best strike player, over the summer.
The Steel were able to retain a core of the players who were blooded under Southby and Avellino, adding promising young defenders Sulu Tone-Fitzpatrick and Phoenix Karaka.
Among management changes for 2013 was a new manager in Claire Malthus and a demotion for Avellino, who took on the assistant coaching role after a review by former chief executive David Bannister found that the co-coaching model was unsustainable.
More on that later.
By far the biggest change for the Steel in 2013 had to be the signing of Jamaican international Jhaniele Fowler.
A lock for the competition's best newcomer award, it would be a brazen burglary if she is not also named the tournament MVP, having already been confirmed as the Steel's most valuable player as voted by the public.
Acting chief executive Kate Buchanan pushed for the Steel to chase Fowler after the Thunderbirds tried and failed to bring her into the competition because of eligibility issues around Carla Borrego.
The Steel initially tried very hard to retain Wilkins then were looking at spending their money on a defender who would step into the gap left by journeywoman import Demelza McCloud.
Fowler was outscored by countrywoman Romelda Aiken in her first game for the Steel but never looked back after that.
She smashed the record for most goals in a single game the following week against the Tactix and would go on to average nearly 50 goals per game at about 90 percent, owning the individual scoring record that was set by Carla Borrego.
As she left Invercargill yesterday on the first leg of her reunion with her fiance and three-year-old daughter in Jamaica, the full impact of what she achieved in her debut season was just realised.
Fowler has ambitions to be the best goal shoot in the world, something she's well on track to achieve at next year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, if she's not there already.
She will work with Steel strength and conditioning coach Simon Jones to build a more solid base - an immovable target for her feeders and a fearsome prospect for opposition teams.
Fowler's re-signing for the next two years is more than a coup, it's a full-blooded revolution.
It should ensure that the best of this year's squad will be eager to return and play alongside her.
It should also make Buchanan's job easier as she looks to secure the commercial support required to move this team forward.
Achieving a top-six finish is admirable, but the Steel still need to take a significant step forward next season to be a serious semifinals contender.
Ironically, part of that will depend on not depending too greatly on the long limbs of Fowler to lift them into the top four.
Skipper Jodi Brown's best game of the season coincided with criticism from the Magic that the Steel were a one-trick team, a point echoed by commentators on both sides of the Tasman.
Brown fired up against the defending champions and the seven goal victory flattered the losing team.
More of that will be required next season - no players is immune from injury or even loss of form - but some of the pressure needs to be taken off Brown.
That could mean Te Paea Selby-Rickit needs to find more agility and convert herself into a true goal attack option.
It's her best chance of court time with the Steel, obviously, with Fowler here for the next two seasons.
The Steel had plenty of experience in its midcourt, with Phillipa Finch and Wendy Telfer offering leadership on and off the court.
Courtney Tairi is a dynamic wing attack although she started to fade towards the end of the season.
Shannon Francois gave up the centre bib to Finch and was unable to get it back.
The Steel's defence has plenty of potential. Well marshalled by Rachel Rasmussen, a trio of coltish goal shoots were tried with varying levels of success.
Storm Purvis did not kick on from an impressive 2012 where she was voted the best rookie in the competition. Sulu Tone-Fitzpatrick made the most of her shift south from the Magic, and Phoenix Karaka offered glimpses of her potential.
For Steel to be a really difficult prospect, they needed leapers like Purvis and Karaka making an impact to offer their defence a point of difference.
Losing a coach during the season is rarely a good look for a franchise although the Steel did manage to underplay the reasons behind Avellino's drop from the management bench mid-campaign.
It's understood Avellino remained disappointed, well after her dropping, at the lack of reasoning she was provided with.
The coaching structure was a headache which had hung around from the Bannister period but the incident remains something of a black eye for the fledgling Netball South organisation.
The Ascot Park Hotel-sponsored team has set a benchmark and with Fowler in the roster there will be significant disappointment if they were to lose ground in 2014.
The Steel faces challenges - player recruitment, a small commercial base, the amount of travel required for training and games.
That mean this franchise will probably never be a regular championship hope but it should be able to build towards a period of success.
At the end of what has to be considered a successful season, they are poised to achieve that, but a lot of work remains if this team is to match the world-class facilities they will be playing in next season.
The Commonwealth Games will see next season brought forward to the beginning of March - and the Steel have asked to open their campaign in the rebuilt Stadium Southland.
- The Southland Times
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