New Zealand's premier domestic netball competition gets under way this weekend with the first round of the National Bank Cup. This year the battle for the title looks set to be one of the closest yet, with the front-runners of the competition all sporting some very even-looking teams.
As has been the case in most years, there is likely to be a definite gap between the top four and bottom four teams in the competition, with the Force, Diamonds, Magic and Sting all strong contenders for the 2005 title.
Here's how the team's are shaping up for the season:
The Force have a reputation for being one of the most talented, yet inconsistent teams in the National Bank Cup competition.
Despite making the semifinals for the past three years running, the North Harbour-based side are still yet to realise their full potential. The Force will be looking to challenge this perception this season by going all the way.
There have been very few changes to the Force line-up this season, with handy additions at both ends of the court working to strengthen this well-rounded side.
The Force shooting end will be sured up with the addition of young shooter Catherine Latu. At 1.92m tall, Latu gives the Force a handy height advantage in the shooting circle, and widens coach Yvonne Willering's options in her attacking end.
Down the other end of the court, the Force have boosted their already-impressive defensive end with the inclusion of former Magic defender Leana De Bruin (nee Du Plooy). De Bruin joins fellow Silver Fern squad member Sheryl Scanlan, the lofty Kate Dowling and former New Zealand and Samoan international Linda Vagana.
Vagana had originally signalled her intention to retire from netball at the end of last season, but the formidable defender has been lured back for another year, though it is expected she will only take a limited part in the season.
But the Force's real trump card lies in the midcourt, where lively centre Temepara George dictates play for the North Harbour side. George is a proven match winner and will be key to the Force's play-off chances.
Team: Leana De Bruin (nee Du Plooy), Kate Dowling, Temepara George (formerly Clark), Kimberley Horton, Catherine Latu, Ritua Petero, Nicolette Ropati, Sheryl Scanlan, Teresa Tairi, Linda Vagana, Daneka Wipiiti, Angelina Yates.
Predicted finish: 3rd
Some aggressive off-season recruiting has seen the Diamonds assemble an impressive squad for the 2005 season, and the Auckland-based side are looming as genuine challengers to the Sting's stranglehold of the competition for the last six years.
With eight new players in the Diamonds' line-up, there will be a much different dynamic about the side this year.
New coach Sue Hawkins has put together an eclectic squad of NZ U21 players, Silver Ferns, and former internationals to push for National Bank Cup supremacy.
The biggest change this season will be in the Diamonds' shooting circle - an area where they struggled last year. With the addition of Silver Fern Jodi Te Huna, former internationals Jo Morrison (nee Steed) and Carron Jerram, as well as talented youngster Maria Tutaia, the Diamonds shooting end will go from one of their weaknesses to one of their strengths.
Buoyed by the return of inspirational captain Anna Rowberry, who underwent a knee reconstruction late last year, the Diamonds also look very strong through the midcourt, with Silver Fern Victoria Edward adding further sparkle in the centre court.
Defensively the Diamonds also look solid, with NZ U21 squad member Rachel Rasmussen and NZ A player Stephanie Bond joining the formidable Kathryn Harby-Williams.
Though they have not made the semifinals of the competition since 1999, the Diamonds will be the team to watch in 2005.
Team: Stephanie Bond, Victoria Edward, Rawinia Everitt, Krystal Feterika-Opetaia, Katherine Harby-Williams, Carron Jerram, Jo Morrison, Grace Rasmussen, Rachel Rasmussen, Anna Rowberry, Jodi Te Huna, Maria Tutaia.
Predicted finish: 1st
With five current Silver Fern squad members in their line-up, the Magic are once again shaping up to be serious contenders for the 2005 season.
The Magic's obvious advantage lies in the shooting circle, with Silver Ferns sharp-shooter Irene van Dyk a key weapon in the Waikato/Bay of Plenty side's attack.
Van Dyk's incredible accuracy allows the Magic to rack up big scores quickly, which is dangerous for any opposing side.
The retirement of former international Jenny-May Coffin has been off-set by the return of midcourt magician Amigene Metcalfe, who missed last season with the birth of her first child. New Silver Fern Laura Langman, who is fast becoming one of the more experienced members of the Magic squad, will join Metcalfe in the midcourt. Look for Langman to play a more attacking role this season, with the 18-year-old expected to play at centre rather than the more familiar wing-defence position.
With defender Leana De Bruin defecting to the Force this season, new coach Noeline Taurua will rely on her young guns to get the job done in the defensive circle. At 22 and 19 years of age respectively, Silver Ferns Joline Henry and Casey Williams will form an exciting and dynamic defensive combination. Both players prefer an aerial game and have the ability to come up with some spectacular intercepts. Henry in particular will be looking for a big season and to build on some stellar performances at international level.
With such an array of talent, the Magic will be one of the front-runners in 2005.
Team: Kiri Adams, Rebecca Gabel, Joline Henry, Laura Langman, Amigene Metcalfe, Louise Moffat, Anna Senio, Karla Sutton, Irene van Dyk, Arahi Wall, Casey Williams.
Predicted finish: 4th
The Flyers have been the perennial strugglers of the competition over the past years, and their fortunes are unlikely to change this season.
The addition of a couple of experienced campaigners should make the Flyers a more competitive unit, but as far as challenging for a semifinal spot goes, it'll be another fruitless season for the central North Island side.
The Flyers have secured the services of Australian import Danielle Harvey, to bolster their defensive end. While down the other end of the court, former Force shooter Julie Kelman-Poto will help solidify the Flyers inexperienced shooting circle.
NZ U21 squad members Jessica Tuki, Liana Barrett-Chase and Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit will be looking to impress as they prepare for the World Youth Cup later this year.
The Flyers showed in the pre-season they are capable of causing a few upsets after recording a shock win over the Rebels in a tournament in Te Awamutu.
But all in all, the Flyers have assembled another young, inexperienced side and lack the depth the top franchises possess.
The Flyers round five clash with fellow cellar-dwellers the Shakers is shaping up to be the central North Island side's biggest game of the season. The result is likely to determine whether or not the Flyers finish with the wooden spoon for the third consecutive season.
Team: Joanna Andrew, Liana Barrett-Chase, Erika Burgess, Malu Fa'asavalu, Danielle Harvey, Julie Kelman-Poto, Jodi Tod, Chanel Haggart, Charlotte Kight, Rebecca Kupa, Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit, Jessica Tuki.
Predicted finish: 8th
The Shakers will once again struggle to compete in the National Bank Cup in 2005.
The Wellington-based side finished seventh in the eight-team competition last season and it's unlikely that they'll be able to better that this year.
Part of the problem for the Capital side is that they have struggled to hold on to their key players, losing their more experienced to players to better-managed franchises.
The same was the case this season, with their two most experienced players - defender Megan Hutton and NZ A shooter Katie Ritchie - returning to their original teams after a one year stint at the Shakers.
This season the Shakers have managed to attract another raft of new players with South Africans Michelle Tupper and Liezel Wium joining the side. At 1.95m tall, Tupper is the tallest player in the competition and will give the Shakers a distinct height advantage in the shooting circle.
Former Diamonds player Brigette Tapene, who was unwanted by the Auckland franchise this season, joins Tupper in the shooting circle.
In the defensive circle, the Shakers have secured the services of New Zealand-born Queensland Firebirds defender Victoria Smith.
But it's hard to see these new additions making much of a difference to the fortunes of the Sheryl George-Burns coached side. The Shakers just don't have the goods to push the top teams in the competition.
Team: Jo Brown, Jamilah Gupwell, Cushla Lichtwark, Lovila Paki, Koren Pickard, Daya Pritchard, Victoria Smith, Frances Solia, Bridgette Tapene, Michelle Tupper, Liezel Wium, Kylie Young.
Predicted finish: 7th
Despite finishing runner-up in the competition last year, the Flames are unlikely to set the competition alight in 2005.
The Flames were practically decimated in the off-season, losing shooters Jodi Te Huna (Diamonds) and Belinda Colling (overseas) along with the retirements of veteran midcourters Julie Seymour and Natasha Marshall.
As a result of these losses, the Flames have been forced to field a young, inexperienced line-up this season.
The Canterbury side have managed to hold on to their powerhouse at the back though, with Silver Fern defender Vilimaina Davu certain to be a key member of the Flames squad.
The Flames have also looked across the Tasman to try bulk up the experience in the side. Former Queensland Firebird Karen Clarke will fill the void in the mid-court that Seymour's retirement left.
Down the shooting end, the Flames have acquired the services of Shelley Norris, who was unwanted by the Diamonds this season, and Sonia Butler.
Though they may be short on experience, the Flames have a wealth of young talent at their disposal with four NZU21 squad members in their line-up, including Anna Thompson and Katrina Grant who will form a key part of the New Zealand side's challenge for the World Youth Cup in July.
But don't expect the Flames to reach the same heights as they did last season.
Team: Sonia Butler, Karen Clarke, Vilimaina Davu, Katrina Grant, Maree Grubb, Jessica Leech, Elizabeth Manu, Joanna McCaw, Shelley Norris, Nicola Russell, Anna Thompson.
Predicted finish: 6th
With a spirited line-up of fresh talent, along with a smattering of experience throughout the court, mark the Rebels as this season's wildcard.
The feisty young Rebels have traditionally been able to punch above their weight in the competition and we can expect the same this year.
Silver Fern Anna Scarlett heads up the Rebels defensive end, but this year she will be without her partner in crime Stephanie Bond, who has been recruited to the new-look Diamonds team.
But Scarlett will have grown in confidence with some strong performances for the Silver Ferns recently and has the ability to hold the defensive circle up on her own.
The Rebels will field a much stronger shooting end this season after securing the services of New Zealand A players Katie Ritchie and Chantelle Ngaia. Silver Fern Angela Mitchell will lead the side once again this season, and will be the Rebels key attacking player.
The Otago side also have some solid performers in the midcourt in the form of Alison Shanks and Debbie White, who were promoted to the NZ A side in September last year.
Under the guidance of coaching legend Lois Muir, expect the Rebels to push hard for a semifinal spot this season.
Team: Dana Bond, Phillipa Duncan, Debbie Hill, Frances Jackways, Emma McGeorge, Angela Mitchell, Chantelle Ngaia, Katie Ritchie, Melissa Ruru, Anna Scarlett, Alison Shanks, Debbie White.
Predicted finish: 5th
It's probably been said for the last three or four seasons, but 2005 could well be the year the Sting's impressive reign comes to an end.
With six consecutive National Bank Cup titles to their name, there's no questioning the class of the Sting outfit, but the Southland side don't look to have the depth in their team this year that they have had in the past.
And with Silver Fern midcourter Adine Wilson facing a stint on the sidelines with a knee injury, depth is precisely what the Sting will need to come out on top for another season.
The Sting have traditionally hung their hat on their speed and precision on attack. Even with the possible absence of Wilson, the Sting still boast an impressive attacking end led by Silver Fern Lesley Rumball at centre and former Silver Ferns Donna Loffhagen and Tania Dalton in the shooting circle.
But if you look to the Sting's bench players, there is not the same potent look about them that we've come to expect from the champion side.
Things look particularly stretched for the Southland side in the shooting end, with there being no obvious back-up should anything happen to Dalton or Loffhagen.
That's not to say the Sting should be written off just yet. With one of the shrewdest netballing brains in the business in Robyn Broughton at the helm, the Sting will still be one of the frontrunners in the competition.
The Southland side's defensive end is also looking strong this season having been boosted by the return of the lofty Megan Hutton, who is back after a stint at the Shakers last season.
Team: Sarah Barnes, Tania Dalton, Jenny Ferguson, Anna Galvan, Megan Hutton, Renee Jacobsen, Donna Loffhagen, Lesley Rumball (nee Nicol), Kylie Smith, Debbie Telfer, Wendy Telfer, Adine Wilson (nee Harper).
Predicted finish: 2nd