All signs pointing to tight final between Pulse and Stars

Source: Radio New Zealand

Minor premiership winners the Pulse know they will need to be on song tomorrow with the Stars on a seven game winning streak and brimming with confidence.

Whitney Souness and Holly Fowler contest the ball.

By Bridget Tunnicliffe for rnz.co.nz

The Pulse host the Stars in the ANZ Premiership grand final in Wellington, aiming to claim their third title to go with their wins in 2019 and 2020.

But Pulse co-captain Kelly Jury knows the Stars will throw everything at them.

"They've had a great run into the finals, they've won seven on the trot and looking very clinical and confident," Jury said.

The Pulse have the best defensive record of the competition - conceding a miserly 48.8 goals per match on average.

The Pulse's specialist defensive coach and former Silver Fern Wai Taumaunu said the Pulse weren't going to do anything different in the grand final.

"We're just going to take it to them. We've got I think the best defender in terms of tips and intercepts in Kelly, she can disrupt shots, we'll be working really hard on things that we think have been successful for us against them in the past."

Taumaunu, who was known for forming a 'wall' with many formidable defenders in her playing days, has been impressed with how rapidly Kelly Jury and Kristiana Manu'a had formed a tight defensive unit.

"The combination between Kelly [Jury] and Kristiana [Manu'a] grew quicker than I expected. They've really enjoyed player together, they are very hard working and very open to new ideas and prepared to put in hard work," Taumaunu said.

Jury first joined the Pulse in 2020 and Taumaunu said she had benefited from an injury free run and regular court time.

"The first season that Kelly was with us she was coming back from a shoulder injury, which had been really debilitating and had limited her court time. So the first season was really around ensuring she was fit strong and she'd recovered correctly."

Last year Jury changed positions when Katrina Rore withdrew through pregnancy.

"We asked Kelly to take on the goal defence role, which she did, I was really proud of what she did in that season. Got fitter, got more court time and I think this year we're really seeing the impact of two full seasons on court and the hard physical work she's done off the court."

Jury seems to be playing with a tougher edge this year and Taumaunu said being fit and strong helped with that.

"When you have more confidence in your physical capacity then your nature is able to shine more on the court so it may just be that she's stronger, faster, fitter and we're seeing that."

Kelly Jury.

Jury said neither her nor Manu'a were big talkers on court.

"I guess it's kind of that invisible thread that we've been able to grow with each other because we can't rely on talking to each other that we've got to know where each other is without having to tell each other and it's a pretty cool feeling once that starts clicking," Jury said.

Wellington born Manu'a spent the last five years in the Australian league but the pair knew each other from when they were both at the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic.

"It's pretty special I debuted with Kris [Kristiana] back in 2015 / 2016 with the Magic and to come full circle and be playing back together again is pretty special. It's cool to reconnect again and really enjoying it and hopefully we can win a title together."

Jury, who will be most people's pick for the MVP of the season, will have a big job defending Silver Ferns' team-mate Maia Wilson.

Wilson has found some of her best form in the last few rounds and ran circles around Mystics defenders Sulu Fitzpatrick and Phoenix Karaka at times in the elimination final.

"Getting off her body and reading the play early is key because if you watch them you can see them setting up their plays quite early on in terms of what sides they want to play and where they're swinging the ball to get that easy entrance into the circle. So just trying to think one step ahead really," Jury said.

Kelly Jury and Maia Wilson contest the ball during a 2017 ANZ Premiership match between the Magic and Stars.

The Pulse are the most accurate team scoring goals at 89 percent, while the Stars are the least accurate team shooting at 80 percent.

It probably cost the Stars some games earlier in the season but the South Auckland based side has upped its accuracy over the last few rounds.

They put out their most accurate performance of 91 percent when they beat the Mystics in the elimination final.

The Stars, who have beaten the Pulse two times out of three this season, have also been very good at scoring off any turnovers.

Against the Steel a couple of weeks ago they converted 100 percent of their turnovers, which is unheard of and they've been regularly hitting in excess of 70 percent in that stat.

Jury said the all seven Pulse players will have to work hard in defence.

"They don't throw away much ball at all and I think that's down to the experience especially with Gina [Crampton] and Maia they've got that connection so we can't rely on ball just falling into our hands, we've got to work for it."

The Pulse's point of difference has been their man on man defence.

They bucked the trend a couple of years by adopting a one on one defence as their baseline structure, rather than playing off-marking defence or zone like most other teams.

"We really pride ourselves in taking on that different structure but we're all experienced, we all know when the right time is to switch in-between zone and man. And I think over the season we've built that connection where we don't have to tell each other it kind of just happens and that's a really cool feeling," Jury said.

Taumaunu said 26-year-old Manu'a had been a great asset to the young side.

"Off the court, she's a really mature hard working presence and that's been a great addition. She's got a lot of experience, that's been really useful.

"On the court, one of the things that's been really helpful has been that long ball she's got, the ability to look over the mess so it's been partly her attacking game although it took her a while to get used to playing against a zone.

"Her never say die attitude so they're kind of the most important things. I think we've still got some work to do in growing her actual game but I think what she brings in terms of her presence and her mindset has been invaluable for us."

When the Pulse lost wing defence Paris Lokotui to injury a few rounds ago, they had an instant replacement in Silver Fern Maddy Gordon.

Maddy Gordon controls the ball against the Mystics.

Taumaunu said Gordon's strength was that she attacked everything.

"She wants to win and she's enormously competitive. She had a bit of a tough time in terms of being perceived to be overly physical a year or so ago and she's worked really hard to be off the body and coming through cleanly and we have worked with her on."

The Pulse have an average age of 23 - the youngest in the competition and Taumaunu said they had brought lots of energy.

"They're funny, they're quite unpredictable off the court in particular in terms of how they'll respond to things but their enthusiasm has been contagious, they've really enjoyed playing with each other, learning new things and it's been a pleasure to be around them."

The Stars finish to the 2022 regular season is in stark contrast to their end to the 2021 season when they sat in top position on the ladder after Round 10 but lost five of their last six matches to finish the season in fourth spot.

Stars' coach Kiri Wills said Covid had been a blessing for her side in some ways.

The Stars had several games postponed earlier in the season due to Covid and had to play several in quick succession in the back half of the competition.

She said that had helped them gain momentum.

"The winning streak we've had ...I've been most impressed with how this team has backed up their double headers so we play one game and we win it and we come back the next day and we're even better," Wills said.

"Covid has actually given us opportunities to consolidate at this end of the season and really bring it home so last week three games before the elimination final, what a great way to prepare.

"We've had several must win games to get to this position ...so we know how to win when we need to."

Stars' captain Maia Wilson agrees.

"People know when to stand up when they need to. Covid has thrown so much at us this year and we have been resilient."

Jamie Hume and Amorangi Malesala celebrate after beating the Mystics.

Wills was really happy with the brand of netball her side was playing.

"The attacking unit, just the space that they're finding, the movement that Maia, Jamie [Hume], Amorangi [Malesala] if she's in there just the way that they create space in there.

"That in turn opens up those feeding channels for Gina [Crampton] and Mila [Reuelu-Buchanan], I call them the double-barrell shot-gun because both of them can feed."

The Stars are only second to the Pulse when it comes to best defensive records. Anna Harrison and Elle Temu have provided their own fireworks with the tips and intercepts they've picked up.

Wills said she was lucky to have clutch players like Harrison and Temu, who could win ball in tight situations.

In 2019 the Pulse beat the Stars in the grand final to lift the title that year.

But Wills said they had come a long way since then.

"I think we've stepped up our game, and so have they but we're ready, if ever we were ready it's right now."