COMMONWEALTH Games selection trials virtually begins this weekend for our Australian athletes aspiring to be on the plane to Glasgow in July.
It’s the opening round of the 2014 ANZ Championship season, with an exciting contest between two sides tipped to challenge for a finals berth – the NSW Swifts and West Coast Fever – beginning what shapes as a fascinating year in so many ways.
For the individual players, the goal at the end of May is to be chosen in the final team of 12 to represent Australia at the Commonwealth Games. The training squad is due to be named in mid-April, so early season performances will be watched closely by the national selectors.
For the teams, spots in the top four are expected to be tougher than ever to secure so early season wins are vital.
Teams on both sides of the Tasman, but particularly in Australia, have gone to great lengths to significantly improve their line-ups.
The ANZ Championship is entering its seventh season and a piece of history will be created in Sydney on Sunday when Rob Wright becomes the league’s first male coach.
The Swifts leader has been impressive since taking charge of the squad last year and there’s high hopes that they can end a two-year finals absence.
Both these teams recruited strongly over the pre-season and, while the colours they wear will be different, fans can expect to see the same high standards of play from Natalie Medhurst, Caitlin Thwaites, Chelsea Pitman, Sharni Layton, Khao Watts and Abbey McCulloch.
Last year’s champions the Adelaide Thunderbirds face a tough opening game across in New Zealand against the Central Pulse – another team tipped to challenge for a top four berth in 2014.
The Thunderbirds’ title defence will be led by a new captain in last year’s Liz Ellis Diamond winner Renae Hallinan, who takes over from the retired Natalie von Bertouch.
Only once in six seasons of the ANZ Championship have the Thunderbirds missed the finals – that came in 2011, the year after they won the 2010 title.
However coach Jane Woodlands-Thompson has gone to great lengths over the summer to ensure her squad is best prepared to avoid a similar situation this season.
The Queensland Firebirds are also across the Tasman to begin its campaign, making the long journey to Invercargill to face the Southern Steel.
Firebirds coach Roselee Jencke is confident her team can cover the loss of Medhurst, McCulloch and Pitman and challenge for the title again.
Firebirds fans will be excited to see Clare McMeniman return to the line-up for the first time since their 2011 Grand Final triumph and she adds depth to their defensive end, spearheaded by Australian captain Laura Geitz.
The Melbourne Vixens go into the season eager to make amends for last year’s disappointing fade out that cost them a crack at the title.
Championship favourites mid-season, the Vixens faltered at the business end losing four of their last five matches to bow out in the Preliminary Final at the hands of the Firebirds.
The retirement of Sharelle McMahon looked to leave their attack void of experience, but that was quickly filled by the arrival of Catherine Cox from West Coast.
Coach Simone McKinnis is delighted by the impact the 108-Test veteran has already had on the young Vixens squad and the new environment has rejuvenated Cox for a big season as she looks to regain her place in the Australian squad and a record-equalling fourth Commonwealth Games appearance.
The Vixens take on the Northern Mystics in Melbourne on Sunday afternoon and, although the Auckland side finished on the bottom in 2013 with just one win, they will be a tough opponent this season having recruited arguably the world’s best player in New Zealand star Laura Langman.
This season, more than any in the past, winning at home will be crucial if teams want to be in the mix to be part of finals action.