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Taurua has ‘spine of six’ pencilled in for World Cup

In the very back row of the Trusts Arena stands, almost hidden from view, Noeline Taurua scrutinises the players who will make up the Silver Ferns side at this year’s netball World Cup.

She’s in no way certain who they will be just yet. She makes that very clear.

But she is getting closer. The Ferns coach now has “a spine of six” in her head – the players who are ‘probables’ for July’s World Cup in Liverpool. 

“The six don’t know who they are,” Taurua says. And their places are in no way set in concrete. But if they stay stuck in her mind, another six will fit in around them.

There are still six weeks for players to put their hands up, as Taurua likes to say, before the final selection for the World Cup.

But they need to show more consistency - fewer handling errors, more shots through the hoop, better strategies to pierce defensive walls – if they’re to make the cut.

Taurua slipped across the Tasman to watch the Super Sunday spectacle in Auckland at the weekend, and will continue to watch the candidates’ every move in the ANZ Premiership.

She may still make a couple of further reconnaissance missions to New Zealand from Birtinya, her home on the Sunshine Coast, because her other team – the Lightning – don’t start playing in Australia’s Super Netball league until the end of this month.

Alternatively, she can watch every game in the New Zealand competition streaming through her laptop.

“It’s bloody awesome,” she says. “I’ve watched more netball this year than I’ve ever seen before.

“I haven’t missed a game at all. I’m on top of it.”

Generally, she likes what she’s been seeing. On Sunday, she picked up “positive aspects” in the standard of the netball: “being competitive on the ball, the fitness, and the overall attitude of the players”.

But she had question marks over other key areas of the game where she’d wanted improvement. The frequency of ball being turned over and the general error count are too high; shooters’ goal percentages aren't high enough.

“Defences are winning a lot of ball, but it’s not being put through the hoop. That’s a basic of the game,” Taurua says. “And to some degree there’s an inconsistency in performance – sometimes from one game to another, or even from one quarter to another.”

All three Super Sunday matches were one-sided, defence-dominated affairs, which didn’t make for particularly pretty viewing.

While Taurua was impressed with the zone defence on display, she was concerned that some teams hadn’t worked out effective tactics to combat it. “It creates great pressure, but I think it could be nullified, or minimised, if a better strategy was put in place,” she says.

If she had to choose her World Cup team tomorrow, she would be halfway there, she reckons.

“I’m confident enough to say I have a spine of six players. I’m going to put that out there,” she says.

“We need a foundation to start with, so we can see where the other pieces are going to fit in. Even though I have six players in my head, the door has to remain open and we have to create internal competition for them all.”

Silver Ferns Casey Kopua and Laura Langman are shoo-ins for the World Cup, while Jane Watson (left) is a strong candidate. Photo: Getty Images.

If you want to speculate who those six could be, you’d start with the three obvious players who are lynchpins in each third of the court – shooter Maria Folau, midcourter Laura Langman and defender Casey Kopua. Having all played over 100 tests for the Silver Ferns, their experience alone is invaluable.

Langman, who’s training for another season with the champion Sunshine Coast Lightning, is “on fire” right now, says Taurua. The coach also met with Folau - who’s preparing for her first season with the Adelaide Thunderbirds - last week.

Folau’s shooting partners could be Ameliaranne Ekenasio (the pair have the beginnings of a strong combination) and Maia Wilson, who tops the goals scored list in the ANZ Premiership so far. But it’s teenager Aliyah Dunn who’s been the most consistent of the Kiwi shooters (on 93 percent this premiership season).

In the middle, Gina Crampton has been in convincing form for the Steel, revelling in her captaincy role. The other midcourt spots, though, are wide open.

On defence, Jane Watson has laid a strong case for her return to the Ferns, standing out like a beacon in an under-performing Tactix side. Kelly Jury has made a strong return to the court for the Magic, after a shoulder injury ruled her out for most of 2018.

The re-inclusion of Katrina Rore will be a talking point over the next six weeks. Dropped from the Northern Hemisphere tour at the beginning of the year, the former Silver Ferns captain has come out fighting on the court, part of the strongest defensive unit in the league, with the unbeaten Pulse.

Rore could be the “slide” in the New Zealand side – a utility player covering more than one position. She’s more than capable at wing defence, goal defence and goal keep. Her Pulse team-mate, Karin Berger, is another who could cover the three roles.

“If people aren’t putting their hands up in certain positions, we will have to make a decision whether someone becomes a slide,” Taurua says. 

The unlucky Kayla Cullen, whose career has been repeatedly interrupted by injury, is another possible utility player.

“Irrespective of whether they are selected or not, we’re all in this together." - Noeline Taurua

With the help of her selectors – Adrienne Hayes, Jo Morrison and assistant Ferns coach Deb Fuller - Taurua will soon narrow it down to a squad of 20 (which neither the public, nor the players, will be privy to).  

Then the team will be named in June, in time to play a warm-up series against the Fiji Pearls, the New Zealand men’s invitational side (a first), and an All Stars team made up mostly from the players who don’t make the Silver Ferns line-up.

“I don’t think anyone knows for certain they will be on that plane to Liverpool,” Taurua says. “They all have the same pressure on them; they all still have to perform.

“But I feel they’re all working very hard, and hopefully the cream will rise to the top as the competition plays out.”

Taurua has also been buoyed by the next generation of international netballers - a healthy crop of younger players making their mark on the competition this season.

“There are youngsters out there who are looking very good for the future, and I must say it’s been really cool to see,” she says.

“Bringing on players for the next World Cup is always in the back of your mind, and opportunities don’t come around too often. But I think the key [to this year’s team] is having players who can do their job, which is backed up by stats and consistency in their performance. That’s our primary focus.

“Whether a player is old or young is irrelevant. We are basically looking for the best people.”

Selecting a side to take on the world’s best may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Taurua says she loves it.

“I find it really challenging, because we have to get it right. Now the players have to be accountable and put their hands up, so that there’s no way we can’t select them,” she says.

One thing Taurua says she’s been “harping on about” to all of those eligible for selection is that they all have a role to play in a Silver Ferns triumph in Liverpool.

“Irrespective of whether they are selected or not, we’re all in this together. We all need to be on board for us to be successful at the World Cup,” she says. “And I feel there is a massive buy-in."

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