Netball: Steel faces true test of ability

The Southern Steel may have already secured top spot in the New Zealand conference but the squad is paying little attention to that as it prepares for a month of netball which will probably determine whether or not it is a genuine ANZ Championship contender.

The only unbeaten side in the competition takes on the defending champion Firebirds in Dunedin this afternoon, in the first of a series of tough matches for the southern side before next month's finals series.

The Firebirds, who arrived in Dunedin only last night, have won 22 of their past 23 matches.

The Swifts ended the side's 21-match winning streak two weeks ago.

The Queensland side boasts a powerful line-up, including Jamaican shooting ace Romelda Aiken and 64-cap Australian international Laura Geitz.

It leads the Australian conference with nine wins from 10 matches and is in a two-horse race with the Swifts to qualify top and book a week off in the first round of the playoffs.

With both sides assuming heavyweight status, today's encounter promises to be a bumper clash, and one which Steel vice-captain Shannon Francois said had the side on edge this week, as it looked to preserve its nine-match unbeaten run in front of a full house at the Edgar Centre.

"I think it's definitely a turning point for us,'' she said.

"It's always good to match yourself against the best. If we can stick with them, we know we're heading on the right track.

"It's quite exciting but everyone's a bit nervous, as well, which is never a bad thing.''

The Firebirds play a fast-paced game but Francois said the Steel would not be sucked in to trying to follow suit and would stuck to what has worked for it so far.

"We'll stick to what you've seen a lot of lately - treasuring our possession and taking our time to get the ball down court.

"We don't care if it takes us 100 passes or two passes, as long as we get it there.''

The Steel plays a rejuvenated Magic next week, before taking on the Vixens and Swifts in its final two games.

The side was aware its matches against the Australian sides would be a true test of where it was at and the intensity within the squad had stepped up accordingly.

"We've increased the pressure on ourselves and we're certainly not resting on our laurels,'' Francois said.

"They're all massive games and if we want to perform in the finals, we need to keep building each week.''

Both sides have considerable shooting prowess.

Aiken and the Steel's Jhaniele Fowler-Reid are the tournament's two leading goal-scorers.

Denying Aiken quality ball would be a priority and Francois said the Steel could not rely on that being achieved only at the defensive end.

"It's up to Wendy [captain Wendy Frew] and myself up front, as well.

"It's got to be full-court defensive pressure and any ball we do get, we need to look after it.''

A sellout crowd of 2700 is expected for the match.

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