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Demoralised Ferns given help to ‘move on’

With their confidence in tatters, the Silver Ferns will be given help by Netball New Zealand, so they can "move on". 

Ferns coach Janine Southby handed in her notice as head coach on Friday morning, hours before the review into the team’s demise was finally made public. It revealed players had lost confidence in her six months before the Commonwealth Games, where they finished outside the medals for the first time at a major tournament in netball history. 

The three-person review panel also deemed Southby’s philosophy of a player-led culture simply didn’t work in a team where the core of senior Silver Ferns players had retired, essentially leaving inexperienced players who were not "battle-hardened".

When the Ferns suffered an embarrassing loss to Malawi in pool play on the Gold Coast in April, the team and the coaching group fractured and any "confidence that the campaign was on track completely disappeared". 

Restoring the confidence of those Silver Ferns is now paramount to Netball New Zealand, as the team attempts to repair and rebuild - all under a new coach - before the 2019 world championships in Liverpool, now less than a year away. Netball NZ  have just three weeks to install a coach for the upcoming Quad Series in September. 

Netball NZ CEO Jennie Wyllie says there will be a meeting of those Games players and team management - but not including Southby. An "expert in the area of performance culture" will be present to help guide them as to how they can move on. 

"We are very mindful that there is closure required for the 12 players and the management who went to the Commonwealth Games. A process will be put in place in order for them all to move on. That's fundamental for us," she says.

The head of the review, Auckland lawyer Don Mackinnon, gave plaudits to the Silver Ferns players for their openness and honesty before the panel, and for taking their share of accountability for the team's downward spiral since October last year. 

"Although they were critical of aspects of the campaign, at the same time they in no way shirked away from their own responsibility," he said. "A number of them felt they hadn't played to the standard they expected of themselves, which I thought was incredibly healthy.

"Some of the younger players blew us away with their honesty, but also their passion. There's still a high level of optimism at the end of all of this."

The review panel (Mackinnon, former Silver Fern Linda Vagana and Team New Zealand CEO Kevin Shoebridge) interviewed Southby twice, and Mackinnon says she was, "as you’d expect from Janine, fully prepared; she'd thought deeply about the issues".

Although she didn't agree with all of the findings, he said, "she's a professional and she accepts accountability".

In a written statement, Southby said she was “very sad to have reached this point”.

She believed she had been making steps in the right direction with a team decimated by player retirements, trying to enforce a new ethos of player accountability and self-responsibility in the team. But now she had to accept it hadn’t happened “as quickly or as well as I would have liked." 

"The results we were able to deliver through the transition were unacceptable. As head coach, I have to front up to my own responsibility in producing those results and I have. I'm as gutted as anyone that we couldn't produce the results we aimed for," Southby said.

Netball NZ will be "working with urgency" to replace Southby; they're yet to determine whether the new coach will be appointed through to next year’s world championships, or whether a caretaker coach will step into the breach. Former Fern shooter Noeline Taurua, now coach of the Sunshine Coast Lightning in Australia's national league, is an obvious frontrunner for the long-term job.

There was more at fault than just Southby in the Silver Fern's demise. The review also showed there was a real lack of depth and experience in the team. It highlighted the presence of two coaches who lacked hard experience and were too similar in their thinking, and found poor performances on the court also contributed to New Zealand's fourth placing on the Gold Coast.

Alarm bells rang at Netball NZ in October last year after the Silver Ferns were comprehensively beaten by the Australian Diamonds in four straight tests. The players let Netball NZ know they were concerned by the losses and the direction they were heading before the Games. 

"Several players began to lose confidence in both themselves and the coaches during the course of 2017," the review findings say.  

Netball NZ immediately took measures to try to stop the rot – bringing in former Ferns coach Lyn Gunson as a mentor for Southby, and former Aussie Rules star turned ‘performance culture expert’ Trent Hotton to work with the players. They also arranged the Taini Jamieson series with a full-strength Jamaican side to test the Ferns before they left for the Gold Coast.

But it all came too late to make a noticeable difference.

“The Silver Ferns - including the coaching staff - arrived at the Commonwealth Games determined to give it their all. However rather than coming together after the loss to Malawi [in pool play], the team and coaching group fractured and confidence that the campaign was on track completely disappeared,” the review found.

Mackinnon says there had been a sense in Netball NZ that “things were okay” in 2016 and the first half of 2017, when their results under Southby were consistent with typical results for the world No. 2 Silver Ferns side.

“It wasn’t until the thorough beating by Australia – when all four games got progressively worse – that the alarm bells started ringing. But it was too close to the Comm Games to make a material difference,” he says.

“Things really fell apart after Malawi when no one knew how to respond. Instead of coming together, relationships became more strained and fell apart.

“This team had lost a vast amount of experience in the first year and a half the head coach was appointed, and it needed a much more structured, hands-on directional approach. Unfortunately, that need wasn’t fulfilled."

Only two real senior players – captain Katrina Grant and vice-captain Maria Folau – remained in the team and were seen as leaders in the side. “If you think about the talent that had walked out the door in that period, the void was too much to fill for an athlete-led philosophy,” says Mackinnon, who is a past chairman of Netball NZ.

Neither Southby nor her assistant coach, Yvette McCausland-Durie, had been to a major netball event before - as a coach or a player. They were also similar in their coaching philosophies, lacking "the complementary skill sets and hardened experience evident in most successful coaching combinations", the panel believed. 

While there were no real surprises for Netball NZ in the review, it was still "confronting", Wyllie said. "It's a balanced and fair report; we felt the critique was right on the mark."

Netball NZ is also acting on the review's findings that netball, as a semi-professional sport, "struggled to embrace a true high performance culture". Wyllie said Netball NZ was already putting in place a high performance advisory group, and reestablishing the New Zealand A team programme to try to close the void between the experience of playing in the ANZ Premiership to playing for the Silver Ferns. They will play English and South African A sides this year. 

Former Silver Fern Bernice Mene has also been appointed to the Netball NZ board, to bring more netball acumen to the governance of the sport.  

Netball NZ board chair, Allison Ferguson, says while there is a high performance culture in the sport, it isn't "broad enough or deeply embedded".

"This was a very fit Silver Ferns squad, and I don't think anyone should think the athletes didn't do the work necessary. We just need to do more," she says.

Since Southby was appointed as head coach late in 2016, she accrued a dismal record of 20 wins and 19 losses. Ferguson said the current Netball NZ board didn't have any criticism of her appointment. "It was a robust appointment process, and there were good people involved at all the right levels," she said.

Ferguson hoped Southby wouldn't be lost to New Zealand netball. 

The review is by no means complete. There is now a 'phase two' - where a panel will delve deeper into the health of the sport in New Zealand. 

"There's no way this sport is broken," Mackinnon says. "There are so many good things happening in it. But you have to take setbacks like this and say, how do we learn and get better? I think the review says netball wants to take the opportunity and learn from it. There are plenty of challenges ahead - our panel is encouraging Netball NZ to invest heavily in high performance, and you can only do that if you have the money to invest in it."

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