Bloxham expecting tough southern derby

Southern Steel head coach Reinga Bloxham talks to her team during the Southern Showdown in...
Southern Steel head coach Reinga Bloxham talks to her team during the Southern Showdown in Dunedin last month. PHOTO: HANNAH BISSET
"Look out — they need to be worried about us."

That is Southern Steel head coach Reinga Bloxham’s message to the Mainland Tactix ahead of their southern derby in their ANZ Premiership opener on Monday night.

It will not be the opening game either team were expecting: Shannon Saunders (knee and illness) and Jen O’Connell (concussion and back) have been ruled out for the Steel and Aliyah Dunn (knee) out for the Tactix.

Bloxham confirmed the Steel had replacement players in line, but was waiting for final clearance yesterday.

Charlie Bell (Sunshine Coast Lightning) has been called in as cover for Dunn and former Tactix shooter Ellie Bird will also assist.

Despite the injury setbacks, Bloxham expected another tough battle against their southern neighbours, who were experienced throughout the court — including captain Kimiora Poi who will play her 100th national league game on Monday.

At the preseason Southern Showdown in Dunedin, the Steel had some nice phases against the Tactix but will need to string them together for longer come Monday.

"If we are doing our jobs, and we can do it really well for that full 60 minutes, then we’re going to be super competitive out there," Bloxham said.

"Our mindset is we’re going in there and we’ve got absolutely nothing to lose.

"We’re just going to go out there and play, which is sometimes a scary thing when you can play with that freedom.

"I think the girls are just really excited to be out on court and to have a southern derby first up is even going to be better."

The Steel failed to pick up a win last season — extending their losing streak to 18 — and they last beat the Tactix by 17-goals in their opening game of 2022.

But there is better news with Silver Fern and captain Kate Heffernan, who has missed a chunk of the preseason through an Achilles and ankle injury, ready to go.

She was "fizzing" to be back training in recent weeks and Bloxham said it provided a big lift for the entire team having Heffernan back.

"She’s obviously a Silver Fern, so it just raises the standard and expectation a little bit more. So it was quite nice to have that piece of the puzzle back and then once Shannon’s back . . . it’ll take us to another level again.

"I think the best thing was seeing the excitement in her face and her team-mates face that she was finally back there."

Final preseason preparations since the Southern Showdown last month had been a juggling act with many players nursing niggles — "our physio’s been swept off her feet" — but Bloxham was confident they were coming out the other side at the right time.

It was "highly likely" Saunders would be available next week, while O’Connell was a wait-and-see situation, Bloxham said.

Injuries seem to be the theme of the opening round of the ANZ Premiership.

Central Pulse shooter Tiana Metuarau has been ruled out of their game against the Northern Stars tomorrow with a foot niggle. Stars midcourter Emma Thompson has also been ruled out through injury and former Stars wing attack Gina Crampton — who is a training partner with the Giants in Australia — has been called in as cover.

The season gets under way when defending champions the Northern Mystics face the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic this afternoon.

Southern Steel 2024 squad

Jen O’Connell, Grace Namana, Georgia Heffernan, Kate Heffernan, Shannon Saunders, Renee Savai’inaea, Ivari Christie, Jeante Strydom, Abby Lawson, Taneisha Fifita.