This time last year the MG Mystics were celebrating winning a second ANZ Premiership title after defeating the Stars 74 – 56 at GLOBOX Arena in Hamilton. This year we are only just marking the midway point as the competition has resumed normal scheduling after a condensed 2023 season due to the Netball World Cup.

After eight rounds, and with four wins and four losses, the Mystics sit in third place on the ANZ Premiership ladder behind the Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse and the Trident Homes Tactix. With seven games left to play before the elimination final and grand final, the Mystics are still very much in the fight.

We spoke to head coach Tia Winikerei and assistant coach Rob Wright about what the team has learned so far this season and what’s to come as we near the business end.

The middle of the season can be a challenging time for all teams as they navigate fatigue and injury, Winikerei says, but the foundations have been built for the Mystics to perform well right through to the final game.

“This point has been about reminding ourselves of what those foundations are, practicing them out on court and making sure we’re in a fresh enough position to move forward and compete strongly within the competition”

Losing star shooter Grace Nweke to a knee injury in round three was a tough challenge so early in the season, but one the team was prepared for, says Winikerei.

“Everyone knows it’s a significant challenge. She’s a world class shooter and she’s exceptional at her job. We can’t replace her, we have to find another way to play and having learned some lessons from 2022 [when Nweke was out with an ankle injury], we’ve done everything we can to prepare as a team.”

Nweke’s absence has provided an opportunity for the Mystics to develop a new attacking combination and a style of play opposing teams are not used to seeing from the team in blue.

“It’s so awesome to be able to get Hannah and Filly [Filda Vui] out in the goal shooting circle together. I’ve enjoyed seeing the speed and shift of the ball when we’ve got it on point.”

Seeing shooter Hannah Glen make an impact for the Mystics in her first season since recovering from a serious knee injury and her first in the blue dress, has been a great boost for the side, says Winikerei.

“It’s always really challenging in the first year back, you haven’t played netball for quite some time and within the first four rounds she’s playing 60-minutes of netball which is a really big step. To be playing quite consistently and developing her skill set under pressure is really exciting for her and us.”

Glen’s easy combination with Filda Vui has come as welcome relief for Mystics fans concerned about the hole left by Nweke in the attacking third.

“They’ve both shot exceptionally well under pressure and coped with different styles of defence while they’re working out how to connect their unit. I’m really proud of them, they continually work hard. I’m also proud of how Peta and Tayla have been supporting them to be successful in blending that unit.”

At the opposite end, young defenders Carys Stythe and Catherine Hall have also made their presence felt in consistently strong performances throughout the first half of the season.

“I’m really enjoying working with the young defensive end. Phoenix has been doing a fantastic job in supporting them and the leadership within the team’s been really holding the team strong together,” says Winikerei.

While the Mystics have suffered as many losses as they have wins, assistant coach Rob Wright says he’s confident the team is building resilience that will stand them in good stead heading into the second half of the season.

“The 2024 season so far has been one of highs and lows. There have been some outstanding performances and some we’d probably like to forget.

“Sometimes when you lose, you look much harder at yourselves than when you win…which is good because hopefully it makes us come back better and faster.”

This season is one of the most hotly contested in ANZ Premiership history and Wright predicts that any three teams could make the playoffs.

“It’s not just the Pulse and the Tactix that you have to worry about, every team has shown that on their day they can get up and win. You just have to look at how many upsets there have been lately. It’s going to be really tight and if you only worry about those at the top of the table then you’re probably going to be in a little bit of trouble.”

Consistency from now on will be the key to coming out on top, Wright says, and winning that notorious ‘Championship quarter’.

“We just have to make sure we do our own job first and the results will take care of themselves. I think if you start looking too far ahead you get in trouble. To me it’s around consistency. Our third quarters have been, to put it bluntly, poor compared to our other quarters. We have to make sure we step up and improve our third quarter if we are to continue to build a consistent performance.”

Winikerei agrees, adding that the team needs to return to playing that classic Mystics style to win games.

“I’d like to see us start strong and go back to the style of play that we’re used to playing and do the work that’s needed off the ball. Then we can take control of the game.”

The question on everyone’s lips, particularly Mystics fans, is can the team go back-to-back and win a third ANZ Premiership title?

Winikerei says that winning is always the goal. The team takes nothing for granted and is prepared to fight for the chance to retain the trophy.

“If we are to go back-to-back, and that’s certainly the aim, it’s not going to be an easy road and we will have to work hard to earn it. It’s not something we hide from, the training environment and the way we approach everything is set up with that goal in mind.”