After three false starts, Anna Andrews-Tasola will finally chalk up her first game as head coach when Central Manawa open their 2021 National Netball League (NNL) campaign in Wellington on Sunday.

Manawa have been a dominating presence in the league since its inception in 2016, winning the title for three years in succession between 2017 and 2019 after finishing runners-up in the first edition. That was all put on hold in 2020 when Covid-19 forced the cancellation of the league.

Ironically, Manawa will square off against Waikato Bay of Plenty, the last team they played when claiming the 2019 title, without a ball being passed since.

Andrews-Tasola, who spent three years as Manawa’s assistant coach before rising to the head coach role, has become something of a pre-season expert in the interim, describing the current preparation as 18 months in the making.

"That included two other pre-seasons that actually got cancelled the week or the fortnight before the first game, so there has been a lot of stop-start preparation to get to this point,’’ she said.

"I’m really good at pre-seasons now and we’ll see in the first game how our prep has evolved over the last three tries. But it’s not about me, it’s about the players and my focus is totally on them.

"There’s a sense of relief that we’re able to go ahead because you can never know what’s going to happen but also extremely excited for all the players and our community that we’re able to get back out on court.’’

A positive for the team has been the foundations already set with about 50 percent of the squad being returning players who have been a part of the programme for a while, Andrews-Tasola hailing their resilience and courage to be able to come back in such buoyant mode after multiple cancellations.

Manawa have a squad of 16, from which a match-day 10 is chosen, and could include Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse players who are getting limited opportunities in the ANZ Premiership.

Sitting directly below the ANZ Premiership, the NNL is a key competition aimed at strengthening Netball New Zealand’s performance pathway. The six teams, aligned with the six Premiership franchises will play a 13-week season culminating in the Grand Final on July 4.

Having former Southern Steel defender Abby Erwood, NZU21 squad member Ainsleyana Puleiata and shooter Grace McLean, who has turned out for the Pulse on occasion, in the mix, Andrews-Tasola has an experienced head in each third.

Internal competition for playing spots is running hot and Andrews-Tasola expects that to transform into better athletes and a well-tuned squad.

Grateful to have a men’s team on hand to help with their lead-in preparation, the coach is cautious about knowing exactly what to expect after such a long hiatus.

"There’s a lot of the unknown and we’re not going to really know where we’re at until we have that first game,’’ she said. "But, there’s no doubt, we will be looking to compete and compete hard.’’