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Finals race heats up in big weekend of Beko Netball League

Three teams continue to jostle for the Beko Netball League’s two Grand Final spots with a key weekend of matches looming for the trio.

The penultimate round of the league’s regular season tosses up two crucial match-ups with the table-topping Heller’s Mainland hosting third placed Central, while second-placed Waikato-BOP head to Gore to play an in-form South.

In a testimony to how close this year’s Beko Netball League has been, the Northern Marvels are sitting at the bottom of the points table but last week came within a goal of the new league leaders Mainland. They are at home to the Northern Comets on Sunday and could yet play a hand in the make-up of this year’s two finalists, with a game against Waikato-BOP the following week.

We take a look at this weekend’s two key games:

■ Heller’s Mainland versus Central (at Lincoln Events Centre in Lincoln)

Mainland’s key playmaker Gemma Hazeldine has been in sublime form in recent weeks earning her the most valuable player from her last two outings. The goal attack is vital to the smooth running of Mainland’s forward line – with both her court play outside of the circle and ability to share the shooting load in it – while at the other end of the court, former shooter Sophia Fenwick is making her mark on defence. Fenwick nabbed four intercepts, eight deflections and two rebounds in a tight tussle with the Northern Marvels last week and faces a big job in marking Central shooter Jermaine Howard-Vallance. Another key match-up will between promising Central mid-courter Maddy Gordon and the experienced head of Mainland centre Nicola Mackle. Central coach Pelesa Semu may also be hoping to have the services of mid-courters Mila Reuelu-Buchanan and Renee Savai’inaea who were both missing in the loss to South last week. Savai’inaea adds plenty to the defensive end with her work outside of the circle and in tandem with captain Elle Temu and Paris Lokotui forms a formidable wall. Three points separate these sides but Central may have the easier run home with their last regular season game against the Northern Comets. Mainland will know how vital points are this week with their final outing against a rising South side.

History: these two teams met in last year’s Grand Final when Central ended their season unbeaten by netting the title for the first time. Mainland edged out Central in Round 1 this year but plenty has changed since then. Central made a slow start to the season but had been building nicely before last week’s surprise loss to South. Expect the defending champions to bounce back strongly in these next two weeks.

■ South versus Waikato-BOP Magic (at the Multi Sports Complex in Gore)

A quick glance at the Beko Netball League points table would have most pundits plumping for the second-placed Waikato-BOP to win this clash. South languishes in second-last spot on the ladder and is out of finals contention. But for two blowouts this year – one against Central and once to Mainland – the southern side has come close to maxim points on a number of occasions. They have now won two of their last three games and have the opportunity for a say in which teams make the top two. They upset the form books last week when toppling the defending champion Central side by six goals and now meet Waikato-BOP, second on 24 points. South are strong defensively with Taneisha Fifita and Kendall McMinn leading the way in the circle while both shooters Georgia Heffernan and Isabella Masani were rock solid last week. Shooter Kelsey McPhee is a key target for Waikato-BOP and is averaging over 45 attempts a game this season while Georgia Tong is a circle defender who likes to hunt ball. Ali Wilshier and Simmon Howe have formed a strong connection through the middle for Waikato-BOP which could prove the difference for the visitors aiming to cement their finals spot.

History: a storming first quarter from Waikato-BOP in Te Aroha back in the first round of the season set the hosts up for a 47-39 win over South. Both teams struggled with their shooting radars that day but South’s duo has been finding form in the second half of the season.

Points table: Mainland 25, Waikato-BOP 24, Central 22, Comets 14, South 10, Marvels 9.