Folau leads shooters’ big step up before World Cup
From her vantage point on a Southland farm, an Olympic basketballer can take some credit for the marked step-up of the Silver Ferns shooters on the eve of the netball World Cup.
On a deer farm in the deep south, Donna Wilkins feels nothing but pride for her clutch of Silver Ferns shooters.
Wilkins, a 56-test Silver Fern and two-time basketball Olympian for the Tall Ferns, was called on by coach Noeline Taurua to help the country's top shooters in their build-up to the World Cup in Liverpool, now less than a fortnight away.
A busy mum of three young kids, living on the sprawling family farm just outside Gore, Wilkins has travelled around the country to work with the shooters individually, helping them with their technique.
And it became obvious over the past week that Wilkins’ advice – on top of Taurua’s influence, and the diligence of the players themselves – is paying off.
Shooting is the one area of the court that Taurua can say she's truly satisfied with after the four games last week against the Fiji Pearls, the All Stars (the Silver Ferns B team) and the NZ Men - which ended on Saturday with 66-54 loss in a hugely historic final with the men.
All four Ferns shooters in that series in Auckland ended up with accuracy above 80 per cent, which is what Taurua has rightly demanded of them.
And if you had to single out one of them, it would be the unflagging performance of goal shoot Maria Folau. Although she’d been anxious coming into the series - over the very public furore around her husband, Israel, in the past week - it had no visible impact on Folau’s on-court performance, averaging 90 per cent across the four games.
On her way to run a Sunday afternoon trial for the Southland men’s netball side she coaches, Wilkins reckoned the Ferns shooting quartet were in superb form - crossing her fingers that it would continue in Liverpool.
“Playing against men’s teams, you can get a little hesitant on your shot,” she says. “But they were all going to the post. It didn’t matter which combination was on, or if you changed the shooting partner, there was no difference in the level of play.
“Although the guys weren’t allowed to block their shots, they were still leaning and jumping, and trying to disrupt the shooters. To play two games against men’s teams and still have those high percentages, I’m stoked.”
For all the brilliance that Wilkins displayed in her netball career – her competitiveness, her leap for rebounds and her shooting accuracy from any range - she’s often remembered for just one missed goal, with 20 seconds to go, in the final of the 1999 World Cup in Christchurch. The score was tied with Australia, who then sunk the winning goal.
But her experience in those pressure situations, and her netball expertise, made Taurua turn to Wilkins to help the current crop of shooters. Two other former Ferns – midcourter Margaret Foster and defender (and former Ferns coach) Yvonne Willering – were also brought in to help in their areas of the court. Throughout the ANZ Premiership, the three coaches spent 45 minute individual sessions with Ferns squad members.
“The shooters were all really receptive, and it gave them the opportunity to ask me questions and focus purely on their end of the court,” Wilkins says.
“Even if we could help with one or two things, those could be the one or two things that help us across the line for the gold medal.”
Of all the areas on court for the Silver Ferns, it's the shooting end that Taurua feels has finally nailed it. The midcourt, she says, still needs work, but she’s encouraged by her options in the troublesome wing attack spot - Gina Crampton and Shannon Saunders, who happened to shine in the final.
Defensively, the Ferns still need to concentrate on working as a unit and “the connection between the top and the back”. But the shooters require little attention.
“I'm still really happy with the shooting circle and with the shooters that we have,” Taurua says.
Te Paea Selby-Rickit may have been dropped from the Ferns for the Northern Quad Series in Liverpool in January, but Taurua was impressed with the way her back-up goal attack slotted in seamlessly in the third quarter of Saturday’s final.
Bailey Mes, the other shooter brought back from New Zealand's netball wilderness, repaid Taurua’s faith in her. In the first two matches against the All Stars and the NZ Men, she scored 91 per cent of her shots, and didn’t yield to some robust defence.
But a shoulder-on-shoulder collision in the men's game forced Mes to sit out the last two games with concussion. It won’t keep her from catching the plane to Liverpool on Wednesday, though.
“It was a bit of a shame not having Bailey in there to see what that mix was like,” Taurua said after the final. “But it's quite exciting Bailey coming back in as another option at goal shoot.”
This latest series has helped Taurua to cement her shooting combinations for the World Cup.
Folau is her first choice at goal shoot. She finished the Cadbury Series with 113 goals from 126 attempts - the kind of accuracy a player of her calibre and experience should be shooting at international level.
Even though she’s spent most of her career at goal attack, Folau’s high-percentage shooting makes her the go-to goal shoot, in what will no doubt be her international swansong.
“She's still learning her craft in that position,” Taurua says. “We're still working on the timing and it's going to come as she gets more court time. [But] the common theme is that she shoots, so the more that we can get her the ball, the more than likely she's going to put it through the hoop.”
Taurua has always believed in Folau’s shooting ability, and her knack of rising to the occasion in the big games – as she did on Saturday scoring 40 from 43 against the very tall and assertive NZ Men’s defence. She didn’t miss a shot until the third quarter.
“I thought she was amazingly dominant. She had a lot of fight and she never backed down,” Taurua says.
Ekenasio is Folau’s obvious starting partner at goal attack. She also had a sound performance throughout the series, landing 86 per cent of her trademark high looping shots, and earning the MVP accolade in the first clash with the men.
The duo cemented their combination in Taurua’s mind during January’s Northern Quad Series and only reinforced it last week.
Ekenasio, now with 25 tests caps, says the latest series marked a “big step up” for all four shooters.
“We've been doing so much work for such a long period of time; it hasn't just been since this campaign started, it's been quite a few campaigns in a row. Things just don't get fixed overnight,” she says.
“But I feel like everything we've been working on is finally coming out on court in games. So, yeah, we're really happy. But, hey, we still want to be better."
Ekenasio gave credit to the work Wilkins has done with the players, and the influence of Taurua – also once a Silver Ferns shooter – since she took on the coaching role 10 months ago.
“It's bits of everything, really. It doesn't really just take one person. I think the biggest thing for us is that we've been working more as a unit instead of individually and that's really transferred across all the court as well,” she says.
Folau, who’s been shooting strongly for the Adelaide Thunderbirds in Australia’s super league, couldn’t go to the Ferns’ training camp on the Sunshine Coast just before this series. But it didn’t take her long to re-establish her partnership with Ekenasio.
“Maria is an absolute world-class player, so we'd expect her just to be able to slot in. She took so much of the workload this week, too,” Ekenasio says. "We worked in whatever combination was put out there, which just shows that we all want to work together no matter what."
If there’s one thing that Ekenasio wants to personally work on in these last days before the World Cup, it’s being more dominant before she enters the shooting circle.
“Creating a little more play would be good, and that would probably take a load off our middies as well,” she says.
The Silver Ferns camp may be eternally grateful for the relentless challenge the NZ Men posed for them in the past week – the first time the two sides have met in front of a crowd (a full house, too, for both matches).
Matt Wetere, the NZ Men’s captain who played most of the series of goal keep (although he also, incredibly, played at centre and goal attack), called the Silver Ferns shooters “impeccable” and “amazing”.
“I can't emphasise how strong they were throughout the series. Their confidence to turn to the posts and just the pop and away was magnificent,” he said. “They should just keep turning, keep shooting, because they've got an incredibly high volume of shots going through the hoop.
“We were very impressed with the level of play the Ferns delivered throughout the week. We've always had a great amount of respect for the ladies of the Ferns, but to see how much they've achieved in such a short period of time under Noels has been incredible.
"She’s made a huge difference. And we know they'll be fine."