Not letup for Magic as business end looms

NOELINE TAURUA: The Magic coach says her side are feeling the heat.
NOELINE TAURUA: The Magic coach says her side are feeling the heat.

They might have lifted the big monkey off their back with last year's stunning title win, but it hasn't helped ease the pressure the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic feel heading into this year's trans-Tasman league playoffs.

Tomorrow night the defending champions host the Queensland Firebirds in the minor semifinal at Hamilton's Claudelands Arena as they seek to become the first team to claim the title twice.

Coach Noeline Taurua thought the drought-breaking effort of last season would help her side become freer this time, but said things hadn't exactly panned out like that.

''That's what I thought, but in reality I want to go out there and win it again,'' she said. ''I think the big difference for us this year is the pressure we put on ourselves, and the expectations and standards we put on ourselves. I think that's the pressure, it's internal not external.''

Taurua is ''very proud'' of breaking the defending champions' hoodoo, where - up until this season - no team who won the competition had made the playoffs the following season.

Because of success the Magic have upped their standards this season. They've broken fitness targets and according to Taurua are the fittest team in New Zealand, including the Silver Ferns. But for all that work throughout the season, the Magic need to front in tonight's do or die clash.

''We don't want it to be our last game,'' Taurua said.''At the end of it, number one, you want to be number one.''

While the Magic are on a five-game winning streak - which, ironically, began by beating the Firebirds, when their match on the Gold Coast went to extra time - they have generally been sluggish out of the blocks. The starts are something they have spoken about and Taurua believes they need to take more control and do the simple things well, especially in the attacking end.

''I think sometimes when we're uncomfortable we start pushing it, we're putting each other under pressure and I think that's unnecessary. If one sort of misfires it actually capitulates and it changes the timing of the whole attack end.''

Despite that, the Magic's ability to come from behind has been excellent and the confidence they would have got from doing that so many times last year, will hold them in good stead.

''It's crazy,'' Taurua said of her side's ability to do that.''That's something that's really positive for us at the moment, when we are under pressure and we do connect as a team - and there's always been a time when we do connect - we're unstoppable.''

Because they were running on high energy after losing their first four games of the season last year, the Magic eased off in training sessions, but this year and in particular this week, they have focused on making themselves a bit more uncomfortable.

Tomorrow night they will have their work cut out to stop quality goal attack Natalie Medhurst and towering goal shoot Romelda Aiken, while the visitors' midcourt is young and nippy. However, it's their defence, led by captain Laura Geitz along with Demelza McCloud and Jacinta Messer, which Taurua pinpoints as the biggest threat. 

Irene van Dyk has looked better in recent time when staying inside the circle, and if she can keep reeling in plenty of ball it will help ease the pressure on her shooting partner Ellen Halpenny, who'll be playing her debut playoffs game.

''Defensively they're probably one of the toughest teams out, very physical, and because of that reason, I'm so happy to have them at home here, it'll make a huge difference,'' Taurua said.

The Magic have the best home record of any team in the history of the competition, winning 85 per cent, and the sellout crowd of 4329 will be noisy and should make life tough for the Firebirds, despite their coach Roselee Jencke playing down home advantage.

''It doesn't play on the minds of our players at all,'' she said. 

''We travel very well, and I think we're going to have quite a few supporters over there.

''It's about turning up, making sure we play consistent four quarters and making sure that we're making the running.''

Jencke said she thought the Magic were going to beat the Mystics by the required 25 goals in the last round, and had a swipe at the league, saying blowouts like that need to be avoided.

Although the Queenslanders are coming off a loss, it was only by two goals away to the Adelaide Thunderbirds, who host the Melbourne Vixens in the major semifinal tomorrow afternoon.

The Firebirds hold a 4-3 advantage head to head against the Magic, but are only playing their third playoff game to the Magic's 14th.

Fairfax Media