How do you solve the problem of no Maria?
The Constellation Cup teeters on a knife's edge after another gripping one-goal victory to the Silver Ferns in Sydney. One more win, and the Ferns will nab the silverware for just the second time in a decade.
LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden looks at what the annual transTasman battle has revealed, and poses five questions that netball's world champions may soon face.
1. How do you solve the problem of no Maria?
Let’s face it, Maria Folau has probably played her final test for the Silver Ferns on home soil, and her retirement from the game is nigh. Maybe as soon as next Sunday in Perth. But are we ready to let her go?
A regular in the Ferns line-up since 2006, Folau is poised to play her 150th game for New Zealand this weekend and, no argument, she’s still the most respected shooter in the world.
Her strength on the drive, her speed and grace, and her no-fear shooting – all on display in the Ferns’ heart-stopping third test victory in Sydney on Sunday - mean her loss to the Silver Ferns will be monumental.
But she’s not irreplaceable.
The responsibility to hold up the Silver Ferns' shooting end will fall on Ameliaranne Ekenasio. Now with 36 tests behind her, Ekenasio's fluid, looping shot and her confidence around the circle were brilliant at the World Cup, and she continues to grow.
Player of the match in the first Constellation Cup test, Ekenasio was worryingly missing in action during New Zealand's six-goal loss in the second, effectively shut down by uncompromising Australian defender Courtney Bruce.
But, in the third test in Sydney, Ekenasio regained the upper hand, dominating the space and being bold with her shots (sinking 27 from 29, including the winner with 20 seconds on the clock). Bruce, meanwhile, was whipped off the court in the third quarter after the Silver Ferns, down by four at halftime, went on a 11-2 scoring blitz.
On the Ferns' bench, shooters Te Paea Selby Rickett and Bailey Mes have both won test matches for New Zealand in the past. But the Ferns must start working in earnest on the next era of scorers.
Maia Wilson, who’s had a rollercoaster Silver Ferns career (10 caps over three years), is still just 22. The goal shoot joined the team on this Australian leg to observe and learn. She needs to broaden her skills to goal attack if she's to be truly valuable.
Up-and-comers Aliyah Dunn, Tiana Metuarau, Monica Falkner, Ellie Bird and this season’s discovery, 1.93m tall Grace Nweke have been singled out for nurturing next year through the Silver Ferns development squad.
Folau is keeping her cards close to her chest. Like Taurua, she’s available for the Netball Nations Cup in England in January. Neither have committed to any netball after that.
But the shooter will probably choose to slip away from the game without fanfare - the way she's played the game.
2. What does a future without Laura Langman look like?
The Ferns’ relentless captain and most capped player in their history, Langman is also closing in on the end of her career (although she still has the hunger, re-signing with the Sunshine Lightning for a third season).
She, too, has earned her keep in this series – taking the ball on almost every second pass and completely controlling the Ferns' attack. In Sydney, she was MVP - assisting in 26 goals, feeding her shooters 43 times, and stealing the ball three times, including the game-breaking intercept.
Langman sees it as her responsibility – shared with Folau and Katrina Rore - to leave this team in good hands; to pass on all they know before bowing out. For her, this transtasman series hasn't just been about building on their world champion status, but also building pillars for the future.
The Ferns' incumbent wing attacks, Gina Crampton and Shannon Saunders, now have the experience, but they’ve fluctuated in this series, at times showing hesitancy to release the ball to their shooters.
Whitney Souness – who wasn’t in the original line-up for this series – put her hand up when she was subbed on in the Auckland test. Her lightning speed and vision into Folau was superb, and she already has a natural understanding with Ekenasio, her Pulse team-mate.
Kimiora Poi, who made a big impact joining the Collingwood Magpies near the end of Australia’s SuperNetball, will be another strong option.
In defence, the Ferns could have been reeling from the loss of Casey Kopua (who revealed last week she was pregnant at the World Cup but didn’t know). But it’s an area where New Zealand finally has a wealth of talent.
The revelation of this Constellation Cup is Karin Burger, who has absolutely grabbed her opportunity at goal defence. At 1.84m and traditionally a wing defence, she may not dominate height-wise in the circle, but Taurua loves her hustle, her strength and her aerial game.
And it’s infectious.
In the first test, South African-born Burger came on as a sub and made a telling intercept which turned the tide the Ferns' way. With Karaka out, Burger got the nod in the second test, grabbing five intercepts and making countless other plays that kept the Ferns in the match. She made an impact again in the third, building a strong understanding with goal keep Jane Watson.
The long-awaited return of Temalisi Fakahokotau and Kelly Jury will provide more choices at goal keep.
3. Has the game become too physical?
One crucial trait the next generation will need is resilience - it’s getting tougher out there.
The increasing physicality of the game is always apparent when New Zealand meet Australia - and the question of whether it’s too much inevitably rears its head when the Ferns lose.
Yes, it’s rough. Goal keep Phoenix Karaka sat out the last two tests with a mild concussion, after copping an elbow to the nose in the first (her second concussion of the season). Australian middie Paige Hadley broke her wrist in the second test.
But when I ask Langman, now a veteran of 162 tests, if it's getting unruly, she simply says she loves it.
“The physicality has been a by-product of the game evolving,” she said. “Why I enjoy it is that it presents a challenge in terms of strategy, how can we play a style of game that counteracts it - or ignores it?”
Coach Noeline Taurua relishes it, too, even after the second test when the Australians turned up the intensity, and pretty much suffocated the Ferns out of the game. “With that man-on-man style, it’s definitely pretty torrid, and you’ve got to be pretty strong,” she said.
She expects the Ferns to give back what they get. It’s part of the reason she gets them to play and train with men’s teams.
And, in the third test, they certainly muscled up, contested - and won.
4. If the players are prepared for it, are the umpires?
It’s another age-old question – if the world body, INF, insists on having neutral umpires, how do you ensure whistlers around the world keep up with the quickening pace of the game?
The umpires have come under fire in this series. The three who controlled the tests in New Zealand - two English, one Jamaican - outraged Aussie fans in the first test and frustrated the Kiwi crowd in the second.
In Christchurch, they were criticised for not calling a Fern offside at a crucial moment in the game, not stopping time when the ball rolled out of court, not calling enough held ball.
Kiwi fans grumbled the Australians were being allowed to hold the New Zealanders off the ball in the second test.
But no one had time to criticise the whistlers – let alone draw breath - in the third test.
Any international match that earns a world ranking must have umpires independent of the nations playing.
It’s not easy when, in a sport with over 20 million players, there are only 41 umpires with an international umpires' award. We all know it’s a thankless task, and even at international level, they’re unpaid volunteers.
But it’s time we saw developing umpires from outside the world's top three nations spending time officiating here in the ANZ Premiership, in Australia’s Super Netball league and England’s Superleague – in a scholarship sponsored by the INF.
Efforts are being made. A world-first study of international umpires was carried out at the World Cup by the University of Portsmouth to improve the development of umpiring, collecting data on umpire fitness, decision-making and performance.
The idea is to build a framework for umpires at all levels to get the support and structures they need. And they’ll need it, as the game gets faster and fiercer – and armchair critics get more fractious.
5. Can the Silver Ferns finally win back the Constellation Cup?
Yes, they can. Their capacity for comebacks is almost unprecedented.
But, if it’s another one-goal thriller, my heart might finally fail.
* The fourth test in the Constellation Cup series will be played in Perth next Sunday, at 3pm NZ time (Sky Sport 3)