Silver Ferns scrutiny can’t be a blame game

The head of the review into the Silver Ferns’ downfall at the Commonwealth Games wants a measured, calm and fair examination of what went wrong, not a blame game.

The three-person independent review panel selected by Netball New Zealand will begin this week interviewing “a long list” of players, coaching and support staff – and even people considered key influencers in the sport.

There has been baying for the blood of Silver Ferns coach Janine Southby – who's amassed a dismal 20-win, 19-loss record during her three-and-a-half year stint. But head of the review, lawyer Don Mackinnon, stresses the review of the tormented Ferns campaign, from the start of 2016 to now, must be carried out in a “very measured, calm and planned way”, albeit with some urgency.

The investigation into why the Ferns finished fourth – their worst result in major competition history – will be split into two phases.

“The first phase reviewing the campaign, what went right and what went wrong, will be completed quickly, within weeks rather than months,” Mackinnon says.

“The second phase will be a far deeper dive into the broader issues, carried out over a period of time. The logic is that there are a series of significant dates for the team in the next few months, and netball simply doesn’t have six months to dive deep into its entire high performance system.”

Mackinnon is joined on the panel by former Silver Fern Linda Vagana and Emirates Team New Zealand COO, Kevin Shoebridge.

A specialist in employment and sports law, Mackinnon has a long history of involvement with national sporting governance, including eight years as a director on the Netball NZ board in the 2000s, during which he was also the chair. He is currently a director of New Zealand Cricket.

Mackinnon was also part of the independent committee that reviewed the state of New Zealand rugby league in 2008, which resulted in the damning Anderson report. That led to a restructure of the governance of league, prompting an era of sustained success by the Kiwis.

Netball, he says, is “something I care about, even though I haven’t been involved for a while”. When the Silver Ferns failed to win a medal at the Gold Coast games a month ago, his heart went out to the team. “There’s absolutely no doubt they went out there and were trying like anything to be successful. I don’t think anyone thinks there was a lack of effort from everyone involved in the team, on and off the court,” he says.

The panel has already identified the people they want to talk to. “Obviously it’s a voluntary process, nobody can be required to appear before us. But the list of people we wish to talk to is long and comprehensive, and it’s going to make for a very busy month,” says Mackinnon.

Southby, who has coached the Silver Ferns since late 2015 and has a contract until after the World Cup in Liverpool next year, will obviously be comprehensively interviewed by the panel, as will the rest of the coaching and support staff, and all of the Silver Ferns players.

The interviewee list also includes some of the team’s funders, like High Performance Sport New Zealand, and the coaches of netball’s zone and franchise teams.

“We also want to interview some of the key influencers in the sport – those who aren’t directly involved in the campaign, but who are passionate about netball and have a great insight into the sport,” Mackinnon says. “Inevitably we can’t speak to everybody who has a view, but we will cast the net wide.”

Netball NZ has asked the trio to analyse "all material aspects" of the Silver Ferns performance at the Commonwealth Games, “including the performance preparation and planning, team strategy and tactics, resources committed to the campaign, leadership capability, selection policies and processes, team culture and stakeholder alignment”.

The campaign review will have to be done “relatively quickly”, Mackinnon says, as the Silver Ferns play their next international series against Australia, England and South Africa in September. The second phase will take more time. “Invariably it’s quite a complex problem to review and unravel, so the way we have structured this process can achieve both goals by separating it this way,” he says.

“Inevitably there will be some broader issues that will be thrown up, in all likelihood around player pathways, and where the high performance part of the sport sits at the moment. The plan of attack is to review that in more detail, probably towards the end of this year. Personally, I think it’s a logical and sensible approach that Netball NZ has taken.

“It’s simply a matter of being very calm, very well organised and fair. Usually that results in some good answers. I don’t think the panel is at all daunted by the job, other than there’s a lot to do in a short space of time.”

Mackinnon describes the rest of the review panel as “wonderful people”. Pasifika community leader Vagana played 61 tests for the Silver Ferns over 10 years, and is now the general manager of Duffy Books in Homes. Having coached the Samoa national team, she is also a specialist coach for the Northern Mystics in this year’s ANZ Premiership.

Shoebridge has been involved on and off the water in America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race campaigns for more than 30 years.  

“I’m particularly delighted that Team New Zealand are involved, because they have been through so much – the highs and the lows,” Mackinnon says. “And Kevin has been at the forefront of all of that. In my view, he’s an excellent thinker. I think national sports organisations can learn a lot from Team New Zealand.”

Netball NZ also say they are thrilled with the quality of the panel. “We were extremely disappointed with the results at the Commonwealth Games and need to understand what influenced the team’s performance,” NNZ board chair Allison Ferguson says in a written statement. “We believe a thorough independent review is needed if we’re to get it right for the future of the Silver Ferns.”

Once the panel’s findings are presented, another review will take place to ensure the appropriate questions were asked. Former Silver Ferns captain Tracey Fear, and High Performance Sport New Zealand senior performance consultant Eddie Kohlhase, will lead the peer review.

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