Balancing act for Southern Steel stars heading into business end of national netball league season
OPINION: With the Southern Steel in a dominant position with six games left of the ANZ Premiership, we should expect to see their stars rested heading into the playoffs or risk injuries.
The Steel boast an impressive record of nine wins from as many games and a goal percentage of 131, to sit four points clear of the Pulse in the standings, but injury to any key players could potentially derail their campaign.
While it would be ideal to maintain momentum and the edge over their rivals, along with going through the regular season unbeaten, the schedule down the home stretch suggests that the Steel will have to rest their big guns at some stage.
Their first aim will be to guarantee themselves the top spot heading into the playoffs, but a daunting final month of regular season fixtures means that their stars including Jamaican international Jhaniele Fowler-Reid and Silver Ferns Jane Watson, Te Paea Selby-Rickit, Gina Crampton and Shannon Francois will have to be carefully managed.
Steel coach Reinga Bloxham must now walk a thin line between resting her key players and making sure her team keeps picking up the wins in order to secure a home final, with the recent close victory over the Tactix a wake-up call on just how fine that line can be.
She will also be helped by the new unlimited tactical substitution rules, which have allowed young guns like Jamie Hume and Abby Erwood to get precious game time this season.
One of the keys to the Southern Steel's success in 2017 is their largely unchanged squad from 2016, which has helped them become the team to beat in the competition.
Fowler-Reid for example is the highest scorer in the league with 448 from 493 attempts at 91 per cent and the Jamaican is crucial to the team's chances of winning the title.
She also picked up nine important rebounds in the recent close win over the Magic, with her 1.98m height and well established combination with Te Paea Selby-Rickit, Crampton and Francois an important part of the Steel attack.
The Steel have been working on their variety in feeding their shooters of Fowler-Reid and Te Paea Selby-Rickit this season, but a new combination could take some time to adjust to.
Silver Ferns goal keep Watson is another import cog in the Steel machine.
She is one of the best defenders in the competition, with the most deflections (55), the second most intercepts (22) and the seventh most defensive rebounds.
Heading into the final month of the competition, the Steel will return refreshed for their match against the Pulse in Porirua on Wednesday, before a four day turnaround game against the Stars in Invercargill on Sunday.
Following on from this they play three games in a week, when they host the Mystics, are away to the Magic for Super Sunday and play the Tactix away, with plenty of rotation the key to getting through this busy period.
Their final regular season game is against the Pulse in Invercargill, five days later.
Finishing top and having their top lineup on court in the finals is crucial to the Steel's chances, with much of their edge coming from their experience and time spent together, while losing a regular season game isn't ideal, if it means a fully fit squad can take the court in the finals, then it may not be a bad thing.