Many have said that 2023 has been a fairytale season for the MG Mystics and in particular for retiring skipper Sulu Fitzpatrick who is hanging up her dress after 154 national league matches and a swansong for the Silver Ferns at the Netball World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa next month.

From the outside looking in, that’s exactly what it looks like. But to call it a fairytale would be to disregard the hard mahi, the road bumps, the highs and the lows and the downright unrelenting spirit of this team. Championship teams don’t get there by luck, they get there on purpose.

To win the title was a vision held by every single member of the Mystics whānau at the outset and one driven by head coach Tia Winikerei in her debut season. To see that realised on June 4 certainly looked and felt every bit the fairytale, but here’s the real tale.


Back to the beginning

The season began with the announcement of a 2023 squad that retained almost every player from the previous year, except Claire O’Brien who was released from her contract to return to her home in Australia. In her place entered talented midcourter Katie Te Ao who had spent the previous season as a training partner for the Magic. Former assistant coach Tia Winikerei took the helm as head coach, while Rob Wright remained as assistant coach.

The team hit the ground running in March under the tutelage of experienced captain Sulu Fitzpatrick and vice-captain Michaela Sokolich-Beatson who led their side to a mammoth 26-goal win over the Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel to set their season off on the right foot.


Much more than the starting seven

The opening match was also the national league debut for young up-and-coming shooter Danielle Binks who became Mystics #82, paving the way for a further three national league debuts throughout the season in Katie Te Ao Mystics #84, Catherine Hall Mystics #85 and Holly Mather Mystics #86.

The injection of new blood into the side was a saviour in tough times, whilst also providing opportunities for the new caps to gain experience at national league level that would prove invaluable later in the season.

Over the course of the 2023 campaign, four of the Mystics’ regular starters were forced to take time out with either injury or illness – including three all at once – meaning the strength of the bench came into its own to carry the team through some tough battles.

First to be struck down by injury was defender Sulu Fitzpatrick who was ruled out in round 5 with an injury to her left knee. Northern Marvels defender and regular training partner Catherine Hall was brought into the fold and held her own against experienced opposition. A determined and resolute Fitzpatrick returned to the court five weeks later and just in time to mark her 150th national league match, a remarkable achievement for a player and leader who truly bleeds blue.

Midcourter Tayla Earle was next with an injury to her right foot which saw her sit out two rounds, making space for Katie Te Ao to step up to the plate. Adding to the midcourt firepower was 2022 squad member Claire O’Brien who answered the call from across the ditch and slipped back into the side seamlessly.

On-form shooter Monica Falkner was the third to take time out as she navigated symptoms from what was later revealed to be her first pregnancy. Falkner remained on the sidelines for the rest of the season but was able to join the team to celebrate a historic second ANZ Premiership title of which she played a big part.

Mainstay defender Michaela Sokolich-Beatson and centre Tayla Earle both missed games due to illness, however Te Ao and O’Brien did a sterling job of carrying the baton for the team and proving the Mystics is much more than the starting seven.

24.04.23 Mystics Katie Te Ao in action during the ANZ Premiership match between the Mystics and Stars at the Trusts Arena in Auckland. Mandatory Photo Credit. © David Rowland / Michael Bradley Photography.


The real MVPs

During Fitzpatrick’s time on the sidelines, rising defensive star Carys Stythe took the opportunity to make her mark on the competition, delivering some outstanding performances and with many even picking her as a Silver Ferns bolter in the imminent future.

Shooter Grace Nweke and wing-attack Peta Toeava were once again the talk of the league, as the pair dazzled fans and stunned their opposition with their almost telepathic connection.

Nweke went on to be named the Grand Final MVP, scoring a whopping 70 out of 73 attempts at 96% in the final and equaling her highest ever individual haul.

After 12 rounds the Mystics had won their way to becoming minor premiers and secured the coveted golden ticket into the Grand Final with one game to spare. The win also rewarded them with a week off after a grueling double-header which saw them head into extra time in their last game at home versus the Tactix.

04.03.2023 Mystics Carys Stythe in action during the ANZ Premiership match between the Mystics and Steel at the Trusts Arena in Auckland. Mandatory Photo Credit ©Michael Bradley


An unforgettable ending

With crosstown rivals the Robinhood Stars defeating the Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse in the elimination final, the stage was set for the first ever all-Auckland Grand Final at GLOBOX Arena in Hamilton.

A sold-out crowd bathed in blue and purple witnessed the Mystics deliver a crushing defeat to their Tāmaki sisters the Stars, claiming the ANZ Premiership title with a convincing 74 to 56 win and gifting outgoing captain Sulu Fitzpatrick the ultimate farewell.

It was an unforgettable moment in Kirikiriroa Hamilton as Fitzpatrick fought to hold back tears in her post match speech and head coach Tia Winikerei soaked up an extraordinary first season in the job as the ticker-tape fell.

The victory was the second ANZ Premiership title for the Mystics, following a win in 2021 that featured seven of the current squad – Grace Nweke, Peta Toeava, Tayla Earle, Sulu Fitzpatrick, Filda Vui, Phoenix Karaka and Claire O’Brien.

The Mystics honoured their whānau and supporters in the stadium by debuting the haka He Toa Matarau, composed especially for the Mystics by expert Mere Arihi Pipi-Takoko.

04.06.2023 Mystics celebrate during the ANZ Premiership Grand Final netball match between the Mystics and Stars at the Globe Arena in Hamilton Mandatory Photo Credit ©Michael Bradley


A clean sweep

The final whistle drew the curtain down on a season that boasted 12 wins out of 16 and a trophy cabinet packed to the gunnels with the complete set; the Hobbiton Cup, the Georgie Salter Memorial Trophy, the Barfoot and Thompson Northern Challenge trophy and of course the crowning glory – the ANZ Premiership trophy.

The celebrations continued through to the end of season awards function at SkyCity where the Mystics whānau of players, management, supporters and partners were able to reflect on their shared success.

The awards were as follows:

Michaela Sokolich-Beatson – He Toa Matarau: The Supreme award for consistently displaying team values during the season

Carys Stythe – He Kakano Award for performances that are consistently within the spirit of the zone’s Whakapapa

Peta Toeava – Manawaroa Award for showing courage, grit and determination to grow their game

Phoenix Karaka – Fan’s Choice