Both the Southland Sharks and Southern Steel knew they would be the hunted coming into their 2019 seasons as reigning champions in their respective leagues but so far both teams have relished the fight and come out on top.
The Steel head into their final two games of the ANZ Premiership netball season locked in second spot and are guaranteed to play a home preliminary final against the Northern Stars no matter what the outcome of the remaining matches.
The Southland Sharks meanwhile also occupy second spot on the National Basketball League ladder, equal on points with both the Canterbury Rams and Hawke’s Bay Hawks, having secured back to back wins last weekend.
Home crowd advantage will play a key advantage for both codes in the coming week, with the Sharks playing two games at ILT Stadium Southland while the Steel also play their final home game at the stadium.
In fact it will be a double dose of sporting action for Southlanders next Wednesday and Thursday with both sides playing on consecutive nights.
Steel coach Reinga Bloxham said reaching the finals was always the number one goal of the team heading into the 2019 season. Standing in the way of a third consecutive championship for the Steel will be arch rivals the Central Pulse, who have already locked in a grand final spot and home court advantage.
The Steel scored an important 62-52 win against their arch nemesis last week and Bloxham said it was an important psychological victory at this stage of the season.
“It was a massive confidence booster. We’ve sort of been questioning why we weren’t able to perform for that sustained time so I think for us we gained a lot out of that game and we know that it wasn’t a perfect performance by any means but we were definitely stepping in the right direction.”
If the Steel defeat the Northern Stars in their elimination final at home on May 29 they will face the Pulse for the third consecutive year in the title decider.
It will be something they will be confident of doing, having gone undefeated at ILT Stadium Southland since 2016 – a total of 1034 days.
“I think that’s just an awesome thing about our home crowd is that they stand behind us no matter what,” Bloxham said.
The Steel get a taste of the Stars a week beforehand at home with their final roster game of the season taking place next Wednesday night.
For the Sharks it has been a solid start to their 2019 title defence, currently sitting with a 5-2 record. A strong 112-102 victory over the Nelson Giants last Friday at home in Invercargill was backed up with a 104-97 come from behind win against new Australian side the Southern Huskies in Tasmania on Sunday.
Sharks coach Judd Flavell said that despite the wins there were plenty of things to improve for the remainder of the season.
Heading into last weekend the Sharks had the distinct record of having both the league’s best offence as well as the worst defence, and Flavell said a balance needed to be found between the two.
“It’s funny, we score that many points that I’m still talking about things we can do better. Some sloppy turnovers and some hesitancy against the zone. We know, I think that’s been evident since game one, that we can put points on the board, that’s not a problem for us. The real big one for us is just making sure that we’re able to stay relentless on the defensive end.”
The Sharks will look to back up their strong weekend against the Canterbury Rams in Christchurch tomorrow (May 17) night, before two consecutive home games against arch rivals and the currently undefeated Wellington Saints on Sunday and the Hawks next Thursday night.
This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here