It’s a gritty battle just too close to call.
Stars wing attack Gina Crampton and Mystics wing defence Michaela Sokolich-Beatson have gone head-to-head multiple times this netball season – and it’s hard to say who’s had the better of whom.
If you factor in pre-season games, this weekend marks the seventh faceoff between the Mystics and the Stars this year – but this is the match that matters most, the ANZ Premiership grand final.
Apart from both having stand-out seasons, there’s so much rival wings Sokolich-Beatson and Crampton share in common.
They’ve both come back after time away from the game – Crampton taking a sabbatical after last year’s Commonwealth Games, living in New York with her rugby-playing partner, Fa’asiu Fuatai.
And Sokolich-Beatson absent from the court for 26 months recovering from the most unfortunate chain of injuries – rupturing both her Achilles tendons, one after the other.
Both women say they’ve come back reinvigorated, fervent. Better.
They’re also the silent leaders in their ANZ Premiership teams – the perfect wingwomen to their captains, with their own proven leadership skills on the world stage and both quietly leading by example on court.
Crampton captained the Silver Ferns to Commonwealth Games bronze in Birmingham last year, so she’s the perfect sounding board for Stars captain Maia Wilson. Their on-court combination has blossomed this season, too.
“I’ve never had a connection like it with anyone,” goal shoot Wilson says. “It’s seamless, telepathic in some way. And I absolutely love her in a leadership space – she brings so much.”
Sokolich-Beatson led the New Zealand U21 team to victory at the 2017 World Youth Cup, and stepped into the Mystics captain’s shoes early in the ANZ Premiership season, when Sulu Fitzpatrick sat out five rounds with a knee injury.
She’ll likely become the captain full-time if she re-signs with the Mystics next season – as Fitzpatrick bows out in her final national league game on Sunday. (Although it’s the first all-Auckland final, the game will be played at Hamilton’s Glowbox Arena – a decision forced by venue availability.)
Sokolich-Beatson feels she owes Fitzpatrick a lot: “Not only do I think I’m a better leader because of her, but I feel like I’m a better person. Now I take a step back and look at the whole picture rather than what’s happening right in front of me.”
Both Crampton and Sokolich-Beatson hope to be playing on the same team in Cape Town 66 days from now, at the Netball World Cup. But they come at it from very different angles.
Crampton, you’d assume, is a shoo-in. She’s the most experienced Silver Fern still playing, with 63 test caps, and she’s only reinforced her expertise as a feeder this season (she tops the list of feeds in the league with 691).
“It’s hard to get away from the World Cup at the moment – the logo pops up in the corner of the TV in every game, and I understand because it’s a pinnacle year,” she says. “But I learned after missing out on the 2018 Commonwealth Games team that you need to perform well for your franchise if you’re going to make that 15 going to South Africa.
“Having a narrow focus is so important, and you just have to wait to see whether you’ve done enough when they name the team next week.”
Sokolich-Beatson, though, is on the periphery of selection. Her horrid run of injuries mean she hasn’t played for the Silver Ferns since August 2018 in the Constellation Cup. The defender was out of action in 2020 and 2021, and was still rehabbing throughout last season’s comeback.
“Then it seemed like it was never going to happen again,” the 26-year-old says of her Silver Ferns future. “But now I’m back to how I was feeling in 2019. I know I still have more to offer, and I know I can get better.
“So I’d love to go [to the World Cup], but essentially it’s out of my control. I feel like I’ve improved on last year, and if that’s good enough, great. But otherwise, I still have time.
“I’m not in any national squads, so it’s easier for me because I only have the Mystics to focus on.”
As you’d expect, Sokolich-Beatson and Crampton have a healthy dose of respect for each other, too.
The 31-year-old Stars attacker, in her 12th season of elite netball, views her opponent as a “big leader” in the Mystics team, and a master of stealth.
“She rallies the troops, especially on defence,” Crampton says. “She’s had a really big season and I’m so stoked for her after all she’s been through.
“Her closing speed is probably the best in the competition. You don’t even think she’s there, and then, suddenly, she appears. It’s a strength in her game I need to be well aware of.
“It’s funny – you know all these things and then when you’re actually in the game you sometimes forget. I’ll be really making sure I’m starving her of any opportunity to take the ball off me, because we all know she can.”
Sokolich-Beatson can totally relate to Crampton’s forgetfulness.
“After playing against her for a few years now, you’d think you’d get better at marking her,” Sokolich-Beatson laughs. “You can do all the analysis you like, but when it’s happening in real time, it all goes out the window and just you deal with what you’re dealing with.
“Gina goes about her business well. She doesn’t have many – if any – flaws in her game. She’s cool as a cucumber and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her rattled, not in international netball either.
“So the reality is, you just have to do your business. Last year when I wasn’t feeling too flash, she set the benchmark very high. But the whole Stars attacking end are solid, so even if you shut one player down momentarily, one of the other three will step up.”
Both players, and their teams, seek a kind of redemption from this grand final.
Last year, the Stars toppled the defending champion Mystics, plagued by injuries and illness, in the elimination final. Then the Stars suffered the biggest grand final loss in the league’s history, going down by 19 to the Pulse.
Their come-from-behind 50-49 victory over the Pulse last Sunday to reach this pinnacle match has given Crampton confidence.
“I’m confident in how we’re playing and how we’re able to handle those pressure moments, those crucial situations a lot better now,” she says. “That’s the biggest improvement in our group this year, but you can’t go in too confident.
“Personally, I went through a lull mid-season – I started well and I’m finishing better.”
Crampton sings the praises of two Stars players who may have flown under the radar – centre Mila Reuelu-Buchanan for a “rock-solid season” and goal attack Amorangi Malesala.
“Amo has come up and taken the load off Maia as much as she can and put up the winning shots for us,” she says.
Wilson and Malesala have had a stellar season, averaging 59 goals a match – the Stars’ best shooting performance in the premiership’s seven seasons. A self-assured Wilson has shot with more volume and accuracy (94 percent so far) than ever before.
“The team have had a really good season, and hopefully we can still take it one more step on Sunday,” says Crampton. The Stars have never won a premiership title.
The Mystics have also had a field day around the goalpost – averaging 69 goals a game (bettering 58 in their only championship-winning season of 2021). Goal shoot Grace Nweke has been 92 percent accurate, and is easily the most prolific shooter in the competition.
You can expect this final to be tight – the three encounters between these teams in the regular season were all decided by five goals or less (and one went to a rare extended extra time). On the scorecard, the Mystics won two of the three to take home the Northern Challenge Trophy.
But Sokolich-Beatson says this showdown feels different – it’s all or nothing.
“We’re trying not to do anything different, but you still know as an individual what this is,” she says. “I’m glad we get the opportunity to be here. I truly believe we deserve to.
“Our team is pretty much the same as last year, when we were aware those last four rounds we weren’t good enough. This feels like we get that shot we missed out on.
“And I feel like I finally have my body back, which is such a nice feeling.”
Of course, the Mystics have another motive to end this season gripping the premiership trophy – it would be the perfect farewell for Fitzpatrick.
The 30-year-old defender has played more than 150 games across five franchises, but all of her milestones have been in the Mystics’ blue dress.
“I will really miss her because I’ve never worked with anyone the way I work with her,” Sokolich-Beatson says.
“As soon as a training finishes, we call each other in the car and discuss how things went, where we felt we could have said or done something differently There’s no need for a filter – you just say it how it is.
“I’ll watch her sometimes and still struggle with how she knows when people need a kick up the arse versus love… nearly every single time she gets it right. I feel lucky I get to witness that.”
*The ANZ Premiership grand final between the Mystics and the Stars is at Hamilton’s Globox Arena on Sunday. Coverage begins at 3.30pm live on Sky Sport 1 and free-to-air on Prime.