Departing Mystics captain Sulu Fitzpatrick ended her ANZ Premiership career on the highest note, but the fairytale may not end there – on the cusp of her first World Cup side for the Silver Ferns.
“Everyone wants the fairytale but it can only happen to one team.”
So reflected Stars coach Kiri Wills, denied the perfect ending for a second year running, as her Stars lost the ANZ Premiership grand final on Sunday to the Northern Mystics, 74-56. The Mystics steadily piled on the goals throughout the game in Hamilton to claim their second league championship, never relinquishing the lead they took seconds after the first whistle, never letting the Stars draw closer than within two.
But the fairytale ending truly belonged to Mystics captain Sulu Fitzpatrick, who retired from ANZ Premiership netball on a high. She played 43 minutes at goal keep, up against Stars goal shoot Maia Wilson – fierce rivals on the court, close friends off it.
Wilson may have done enough to cement a spot on the plane to Cape Town for her very first Netball World Cup in July, ending up as the most accurate shooter in the league in one of the best seasons of her career.
And Fitzpatrick will also discover on Wednesday if she’ll play at her last World Cup – which unbelievably in a 13-year elite career would also be her Cup debut.
The two captains may have been at different ends of the spectrum in terms of the result, but shared the exact same thoughts.
Fitzpatrick has 27 Silver Ferns caps since she made her debut in 2011, but is yet to make a World Cup team. She sat out five rounds due to a knee injury this season, but came back just as strong. Her return to the court was timed perfectly – the defender’s leadership and on-court presence guiding the Mystics’ final run to victory.
When asked if she thinks she had done enough to make the Silver Ferns bound for South Africa, Fitzpatrick was diplomatic.
“I think the selections are just going to be how are they going to fit the pieces of the puzzle,” she says. “So it’s not a reflection of if you’re good enough or not, it’s just what the fit is so it’s not up to us.”
Wilson had similar thoughts. “I hope I get a really cool phone call on Wednesday, wishing me all the best and saying I’m on a plane,” she smiles.
“But I’m at a space where even if it doesn’t go my way, I feel I’ve done everything I can to book myself a ticket. If it doesn’t happen, that’s all good, I’m just not right for that time. But I can be proud of the product I’ve produced this year.”
With the retirement of Bailey Mes, Wilson may have done enough to make the Silver Ferns World Cup team. Wilson shot 38/42 in the final, and had a season-long accuracy of 94 percent – the highest in the competition.
The 25-year-old believes there are a few reasons why she’s had a stellar season.
“First and foremost I feel really comfortable in my leadership,” she says.
“I’ve been really well supported by not just the other three people in our leadership group, but actually our whole team. I feel very secure in myself, I think that translates to my leadership and being on court.
“I’m proud of my contribution to this team, I am every year but for some reason, something magical’s come out of it and it set me in a comfortable place.”
The game started and ended in tears for Fitzpatrick. Her twins, Tevita and Theresa, delivered the ball to Mystics centre Tayla Earle, creating an overwhelming wave of emotion for their mum, and didn’t end there.
“I was coming in and out of emotions during the whole game but I was always looking at my teammates and we had each other’s backs,” Fitzpatrick says.
“Sometimes you just know, and I just knew because you could see it in everyone’s eyes. Even some of those loose balls where we had no right to get it, somehow one of us picked it up which shows how much we love each other.”
That echoed what Stars coach Kiri Wills had said earlier: “Every now and then the bounce wouldn’t go our way, which was a little bit unlucky with some of the loose stuff.”
The Stars lost last year’s grand final to the Central Pulse by 19 goals, and this year’s margin was 18, but Wills said this year didn’t feel as bad.
“Last year, it was a bit of ‘throw the baby out with the bath water, let’s start again, let’s start new’. This year it will be ‘build’,” she says, noting how her team couldn’t stop the ball into Mystics goal shoot Grace Nweke.
The match’s MVP, Nweke was on fire from the first whistle, sitting at 20 from 20 at the first quarter break, and finishing with a massive 70 goals.
She was well supported by Filda Vui, who forced an early change in the Stars’ defence, bringing on Holly Fowler on to shut her down at the centre pass.
There were swarms of purple throughout the stadium, but both teams had equally loud supporters – making the trip south to Hamilton, the final played on neutral ground.
By halfway through the final quarter, the win was well and truly sealed for the Mystics, and head coach Tia Winikerei took the chance to put all 11 of her players out on court.
Getting the win in her very first season as head coach, Winikerei says it means a lot to her to be able to have the whole squad play.
“We’ve worked really hard to make sure people are confident and ready to go on the court whenever we’ve needed them and we’ve needed everybody to get here,” she says.
The Mystics had injuries, illness and pregnancy all affecting player availability this season, but it didn’t affect the team, players like Katie Te Ao and Carys Stythe (predicted by many to be a future Ferns star) able to slot in seamlessly.
“We’ve got developing players in our team but those players are supported and they’re confident to go on,” Winikerei says.
“It’s a privilege and it delights me to be able to give those players that opportunity. What we’re seeing from them is that they are good enough and they’re going to be exceptional with time. It’s really cool.”
*The Silver Ferns 2023 Netball World Cup team will be named at 1pm on Wednesday, live on Sky Sport 1.