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Why the Silver Ferns are suddenly losing

Whatever is strangling the Silver Ferns right now is a multi-tentacled beast.

It’s not often a loss at the Commonwealth Games stirs up more national feeling than a gold medal. But when it’s the Silver Ferns who are losing – like they never have before – then the outpouring of public angst is justified.

Much of the blame must be shouldered by their coach, Janine Southby, whose questionable strategies and constant player rotations have been disastrous in the Silver Ferns’ downward spiral. But there are other issues at play.

One of them is inexperience. This is a national netball side seriously lacking in senior players. In fact, there are just two genuinely senior members of this team – defender Katrina Grant and shooter Maria Folau. And in this Games cauldron, experience counts.

The Ferns squad took a hammering with retirements last season. In defence alone, they lost three players who had 327 international caps between them. The players who’ve succeeded them may be the best we have, but they’re green – two have come straight from the (albeit victorious) New Zealand under-21 side.

The decision not to allow Laura Langman to play for the Silver Ferns last season, after taking a contract to play in Australia, still haunts this side. Langman was pivotal to the Ferns’ structure on court – she directed and connected play through the middle. Few players could ever replicate Langman’s freakish skill, drive and leadership.

She is sorely missed in this team. But at the same time, you have to respect Netball New Zealand’s decision. Without the eligibility rule, a host of Silver Ferns would have been drawn across the ditch by lucrative contracts, weakening the franchise teams here. That, in turn, affects sponsorship, which helps to keep the game alive. But ultimately, it was Langman’s decision not to be considered for this Commonwealth Games side.

When you’re left with an inexperienced squad, you have to build up the confidence, resilience and connections between your players. But that's not something you should be doing in the midst of the Commonwealth Games – one of two pinnacle events in international netball.

The rest of the world is finally catching up to New Zealand and Australia – the only teams to have made the Commonwealth Games finals - so no nation in this competition should be taken lightly. Both the Ferns and England have been pushed hard by Uganda’s ‘She Cranes’ on the Gold Coast.

The time to test out combinations has long since passed. The Silver Ferns now desperately need to establish a top seven line-up and give those seven consistent court time from here on, so they can cement as a team, and become the force the netball world expects them to be.

That’s where Southby’s strategies must be questioned.

Her continuous substitutions during the historic four-goal loss to the Malawi Queens were mystifying. Why change a successful shooting combination in Folau and Te Paea Selby-Rickit after just the first quarter, when they had established an 18-11 lead?  Why bench both Grant and Temalisi Fakahokotau, the most experienced defensive combination the Ferns have, when you’re trying to shut down one of the world’s best shooters, Mwai Kumwenda?

Southby kept ringing the changes, even as the advantage of 10 goals was frittered away until they fell into deficit in a dreadful third quarter, from which they couldn’t recover. It’s hard to build faith and belief in your team when you’re constantly shuffling the deck.

In complete contrast last night, Southby stuck with her starting seven - who look to be the Ferns' top seven - for almost the entirety of their 60-29 win over Scotland. Although the New Zealanders made far too many errors throughout the match, there was a stronger sense of unity and understanding between the team on court. 

The rotation policy against Malawi also reeked of complacency. Less than three weeks earlier, the Ferns had beaten the Queens by 33 goals. At the time, Malawi moaned that jetlag had put them off their game.

Underestimating Malawi is a fool’s game. They are not among the minnows of world netball (as much as the Australian media might have you believe). They’re ranked No. 6 in the world, and have been threatening to topple a netball giant for years. If you’re going to make a comparison, it’s like the All Blacks losing to Wales – not Namibia.

Having lost to Uganda (ranked seventh) the night before, the Queens played with an urgency, determination and purpose the Silver Ferns would usually possess. They stuck to their game plan, with their best players on court.

And maybe winning meant more to Malawi. As their coach Whyte Mulilima said after the momentous victory: “We have beaten the untouchables. We can walk tall now.”

The Silver Ferns walked away from the court heads bowed.

Southby’s inexperience at this level of netball may now be telling. Before she was appointed to the Silver Ferns role in November 2015, she had coached the New Zealand U21 team who won gold at the 2013 World Youth Cup, the Fast5 Ferns for two years, and the Southern Steel for two seasons.

Her selection as Ferns coach ahead of Noeline Taurua was contentious. Taurua had a more glittering resume - as an assistant to Ferns’ coach Wai Taumaunu, and as a successful franchise coach (now on both sides of the Tasman).

Although Southby has seen success in her tenure - including victory over Australia - the latest results are glaring. In the past 15 tests, New Zealand have won just six. Losses to England, Jamaica, and Malawi have thrown the Ferns into that spiral.

Calls to cull Southby are loud, but they may be premature – only because the Ferns haven’t finished this campaign yet. Their 31-goal victory over Scotland may help their cause - if they lose to England in their final pool game on Wednesday night, their place in the semi-finals will be determined by goal countback.

Or maybe they will be fired up by their defeat to the Queens, and charge to the top of the podium. This, of course, may be wishful thinking.

While Southby is contracted to coach the Ferns through to the next World Cup in July 2019, her performance at these Games will come under heavy scrutiny by Netball NZ in an already-planned review. If she hasn’t met her KPIs (or achieved her objectives), her tenure could be terminated. Or she may yet fall on her sword.

The next two games could be the most crucial in Southby’s career. And for the immediate future of the Silver Ferns.

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