Youth and unpredictability headline the Southern Steel in 2021

DEVELOPMENT is key for the Southern Steel heading into the 2021 ANZ Premiership season according to co-captain Shannon Saunders. There was a significant amount of player changeover at the end of last season with Gina Crampton and Kalifa McCollin departing, however those holes made way for youth to shine through, with the side boasting seven players under the age of 21 in a real showing of faith and excitement. With youth comes an element of unpredictability, something the Steel will be hoping to capitalise on to exploit opposition sides.

“Yeah, it’s (the team is) extremely young but I think it’s quite exciting. They bring so much energy and are just so enthusiastic and like sponges,” Saunders said. “They just want to learn which is really cool and I think it just creates a new environment for us, which is exciting.”

“Lots of other teams don’t really know how we’re going to come together or what type of game we’re going to play, so I think that’s really exciting because we’re a lot of unknown for everyone so I think that will provide a good challenge for other teams playing us.”

The new faces include the likes of two-time premiership players Tiana Metuarau and Renee Savai’inaea who both made the switch from the Central Pulse while Kate Heffernan, Taniesha Fifita and Kiana Pelasio return for another season with the Steel. The likes of Ali Wishier and Sarapheinna Woulf also feature in the under 21 brigade and with each player bringing their own natural flair the Steel will have to work in overdrive to find a winning combination.

“Steel is renowned for holding onto position and just keeping hold of the ball so we’d like to stick to that. But obviously with so many new players we kind of need to create our own brand as well,” Saunders said.

“I think the main thing is playing to each other’s strengths so just really bringing out the best of each person, and allowing them to flourish out on court and bring the talents and the strength that they have, so just trying to kind of make everyone look good and feel good and then we’ll play games so that’s probably the main thing.”

Speaking of new recruits, one of the most exciting acquisitions heading into the season is England Roses goaler, George Fisher. The towering goal shooter is set to be a lynchpin in attack for the Southern Steel with her height and commanding nature a couple of focal points in her game play. But it was a long time coming for Fisher and the Steel as a whole, with the England international only getting out of quarantine a couple of weeks ago.

“Yeah, it’s very exciting and she only kind of arrived out of quarantine. We’re still getting to know her as a player and how she likes to play the game and everything like that. But it’s been good, we were waiting a long time for her to kind of get here, so it’s nice to finally feel like our team’s whole and everyone’s here and ready to get stuck in.”

Travelling from the UK to New Zealand posed a number of challenges, and Fisher’s absence caused a few obstacles for the Steel, forced to make do without her for a large chunk of the preseason.

“Yeah, we tried to include her as much as we could in all of our Zoom meetings and just kind of keep her up with what we were doing. But you know, all we could do was just focus on other combinations because we can’t really rely on certain players and I think we kind of learnt that last year, with so many injuries, that everyone in the team can take the court at any time,” Saunders said.

“We need to be prepared for that, so it was good to just settle with so many other new girls coming in as well, so we’re just settling on combinations and connections and now George can just sort of slot in and suss it all out from there.”

Although last year did not go to plan for the Southern Steel with the side marred by a number of season-ending injuries to their goalers, one key thing that Saunders took out of their campaign was the importance of readiness and versatility. This mindset has somewhat spurred Saunders and the Steel on ahead of the upcoming season.

“Everyone needs to be kind of ready to take the court and everyone needs to kind of be prepared, across the game plan, like training really hard and pushing each other and training so that whenever, whoever goes out on court that they’re ready to go. So I think that’s been a really big, learning not to get too comfortable if you’re not on the court at the start – that doesn’t mean anything right, you could be on later on.”

The intention of winning is at the forefront of every team’s mind ,however the Steel are also focused on development and ensuring that their young players get a chance to ply their trade on the big stage.

“Ideally we would love to win, we always go out there to win the championship and I think that’s like our big overall goal. But I think the main thing we kind of talked about was just making sure we learn each week and progress and develop.

“I think that’s really crucial, if we’re not learning from our mistakes then we’re not doing something right there. So I think as long as we see progression of people learning and improvement then we can only be happy really.”

Holding the co-captaincy title this year alongside veteran Te Huinga Selby-Rickit, Saunders will be hoping to use her years of experience to set the tone through the midcourt, whether it be playing centre or wing attack, and provide that calming presence.

“I think just being one of the older players anyway, I just kind of need to lead by example. Just share my experiences with the girls and provide that kind of calm presence out on court. I’ve been in those situations, done it before so you know, lead from the front and really speak with my actions.”

“I think we are definitely still in the figuring out combination stage. I quite like the mix between both. I think I bring different strengths to each position, and it can change the game depending on who’s where so I think that’s a really good thing especially with lots of young girls. We might not be able to be consistent for a full 60 minutes so if we can keep changing our line-ups and things like that I think that will be a really effective way that we can play,” she said.

Southern Steel open their account against grand finalists Mainland Tactix in what will be a great showing of youth and experience on Sunday, April 18.

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