Power shift looming in trans-Tasman netball
A potential power shift and possible changing of the guard add a high level of intrigue to the new trans-Tasman netball season starting this weekend.
In both Australia and New Zealand the battlers of recent years have beefed up their rosters to the point where they can realistically aspire to make the semi-finals.
In Australia, that involves the West Coast Fever and NSW Swifts, both of who have added a couple of Australian squad members.
Conversely, last season's champions Adelaide Thunderbirds and runners-up Queensland Firebirds have both lost two key players.
The Melbourne Vixens, who finished third last year, are perhaps best-placed of the top three to mount a title challenge again.
They have replaced retired legend Sharelle McMahon with another veteran shooter, Catherine Cox, who has moved across from Fever.
Across the ditch, the Auckland-based Northern Mystics, who finished bottom last year, and the Central Pulse, who have never made the semi-finals, have strengthened their rosters.
Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic's proud record of being the only one of the 10 teams never to have missed the finals could be threatened this year, as Australian coach Julie Fitzgerald takes over a team that has lost several quality players including Silver Ferns superstars Irene van Dyk and Laura Langman.
Reigning champions Adelaide, the only two-time title winners, are striving to become the first franchise to go back-to-back.
Talismanic captain and midcourt general Natalie von Bertouch has retired and Diamonds defender Sharni Layton has joined Swifts, who have also persuaded prolific shooter Caitlin Thwaites to join a team under the mentorship of the competition's first male coach, Rob Wright.
Last season's runner-up Queensland Firebirds have lost both Natalie Medhurst and Chelsea Pitman to Fever, who now boast the frontcourt trio that was an integral part of Australia's 2011 world championship win.
The Fever have never finished higher than sixth and are the only one of the five Australian teams not to have won the competition.
The Magic have experienced one of the biggest turnovers of personnel in the competition's history with nine new players.
In Wellington, the Pulse, who have gradually climbed the ladder after finishing last in the first two years, will look to improve on last year's fifth position.
The addition of van Dyk and England international defender Ama Agbeze will assist that endeavour.
The Mystics, who surprisingly finished last in 2013, look to have arguably the strongest squad of the Kiwi teams, and could go close to their feats of 2011 and 2012 when they finished second and third respectively.
They have acquired Langman, while Silver Ferns defender Anna Harrison returns after missing last season through pregnancy.
The Invercargill-based Southern Steel, who finished sixth last year, could well end up in mid-table again, though they have some good young talent to go with last season's competition MVP, Jamaican shooter Jhaniele Fowler.
Christchurch-based Mainland Tactix, who along with Fever have been one of the great under-achievers of the competition, have made one of the more intriguing signings.
Prolific Malawi international shooter, Mwai Kumwenda, who was the MVP of the second-tier Australian Netball League last year, becomes the first player from her country to participate in the trans-Tasman competition.