Sparked by a key second half defensive switch, the MG Mystics returned to the ANZ Premiership’s winners’ circle with a hard-fought victory over Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse.

The two teams produced a tense second round match on Sunday with the Mystics holding their nerve against a fast-finishing Pulse to win 66-60 at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua.

The Pulse, who were ruled out of the opening round due to Covid illness, had a number of new faces in the squad including centre Erikana Pedersen who has put her retirement on hold to pull on the yellow dress. They also had a stand-in coach in Waimarama Taumaunu, who was making her first appearance with the coach’s clipboard in a domestic league since the mid-90s, sitting in for Yvette McCausland-Durie who had tested positive to Covid earlier this week.

The Mystics were almost back to full strength with Grace Nweke returning to the shooting circle but without defender Phoenix Karaka and Fa’amu Ioane, coach Helene Wilson was forced for a positional change with Tayla Earle filling the wing defence bib.

Both teams settled into their roles early, but it was the patience from the Pulse, coupled with a solid holding game from shooter Aliyah Dunn in the first quarter, which ensured the hosts went to the break with a slim 17-15 advantage.

Missing from the first week of play, it didn’t take long for Nweke to re-establish her crucial links with wing Peta Toeava and with goal attack Monica Falkner doing a fine job drawing defence out, the route into the Silver Ferns shooter came into play.

Trailing by two, the Mystics’ intensity lifted a notch on the resumption of play, netting six unanswered goals to go ahead by three only to let it slip just as quickly with the scores locked after five minutes.

Captain and goal keeper Sulu Fitzpatrick tightened up on Dunn in the second quarter, slashing the Pulse’s shooting opportunities in half as the Mystics threatened on a number of occasions to take control.

Nothing separated the two teams at halftime (30-30) and with both sides set to play another match this round – the Pulse just 24 hours later – the question was going to be how players would be managed over the second 30 minutes without losing any punch on court.

Mystics went to the bench after the break with Carys Stythe coming on at goal defence, Michaela Sokolich-Beatson moving to the wing and Earle shifting to centre.

Earle added a new spark up front, but it was the long reach of Stythe at the other end of the court which made the biggest impact, adding some uncertainty into the Pulse feeds. An intercept from the goal defence helped the visitors open the biggest lead of the game of five goals.

The Pulse was forced to the bench late in the spell as Kristiana Manu’a limped off court, troubled by a niggle, and was replaced by Parris Mason at goal defence with just seconds left on the clock.

Trailing 41-47 with one quarter to play and conscious of a quick turnaround for the Pulse, coach Taumaunu made more changes as national netball league attacker Ainsleyana Puleiata replaced Whitney Souness on the wing. Paris Lokotui and Jazz Scott continued to share the wing defence bib, the latter coming on with five minutes left in the match.

Wilson also turned to her bench as Falkner made way for Filda Vui at goal attack while Kenza Taele made her Premiership debut in the blue dress, coming on at wing defence, as the Mystics weathered a late push from the Pulse, needing a strong through court defensive effort to thwart the hosts’ efforts.