Player retention has provided a healthy foundation for defending champions Central Manawa to launch their 2024 Synergy Hair Netball League (NNL) campaign starting with their season-opener against the Comets in Auckland on Sunday.

With eight players returning from last year's NNL winning team, Manawa have a strong stable of talent to defend the title in 2024 which includes four NZ U21 squad members – defenders Madison Thomas, Rachel Price and Caitlin Lafaele, in her first year out of school, and shooter Sarah Guiney.

After six weeks of pre-season preparation, Manawa coach Ngarama Milner-Olsen said the players are itching to get out and play.

After guiding the team to their fifth title in her first season as head coach in 2023, Milner-Olsen has been able to build on her team's depth of experience and talent in shaping her 2024 edition. With that comes strong competition for starting spots.

"We're always challenging one another and encouraging the players to be better and they know it's all based on performance, growth and development. So, yes, they're hungry, but healthy competition is a good thing," she said.

And it's the same for Milner-Olsen's coaching credentials following a steep learning curve in her first year.

"Coaching is always evolving," she said. "The player make-up changes every time, so you need to continue adjusting and adapting to that. It never gets easier because there's always challenges within a coaching realm that we have to deal and work with.’’

In a re-match of last year's Grand Final, Manawa winning a close contest by two goals on that occasion, Milner-Olsen is looking for the simple things to be done well to kick-start their efforts in 2024.

"First and foremost, I want the focus to be on the basics done well with the players owning their own roles on court," she said. "And then, collectively, as units, bring that all together…..those on-court connections. And then throughout the season to just continue building on that."

"But for this first hit-out, it will just be about owning your own job, doing that well and doing the basics well."

"Everyone's worked hard and it would be great to get a good start, however it's not until we get out on court that the true reality hits."

"We can't control what they do but what we can control is what our execution is like and ensuring that we do that really well."

After suffering a third ACL knee injury last season, exciting midcourt talent Ainsleyana Puleiata is part of the Manawa squad, attending trainings and continuing her rehab with the hope she will return to the court at some stage this season.

"She's progressing really well. Every week she's advancing and we're really hopeful that she will be back this year," Milner-Olsen said.

"We're just really happy to support her and ensure we do right by her to come back fitter, faster, stronger this season. She's a valued member of our squad and brings a lot of knowledge and experience within the NNL programme while also bringing her professionalism from what she's taken during her time in the Pulse environment."