Netball

Time for a new generation of Ferns

If you’re looking for a bolter in the Silver Ferns side of 2017, look no further than the Queens of Gaborone.

And to narrow it down even further, cast your eyes to a 16-year-old shooter – already a world champion - who could be the youngest netballer to ever debut for the Silver Ferns in New Zealand’s 79-year international history.

When the triallists get down to business in Auckland for five days from next Monday, all 24 should feel they have a fair shot at making the Silver Ferns’ squad of 15, handpicked for a hectic season of 10 tests over two months.

There has been a significant loss of depth in the New Zealand line-up this year alone. Gone are former captain Casey Kopua, Anna Harrison, and Leana de Bruin – all retired from the international game. That’s a total of 327 international caps disappearing in one fell swoop, and all from the back-end of the court. Laura Langman’s decision to play in Australia this year and next, removes her 137-test wisdom from the team’s make-up too.

Shooter Maria Tutaia now has the most experience to draw on (107 caps), followed by captain Katrina Grant, six tests short of her century. Then there’s a substantial gulf to the next level of seasoned players.

Take Kayla Cullen - a player who you feel has been around forever. But since she made her debut in 2011, the most versatile Fern – who’s played at centre, wing defence and goal defence for her country – has just 35 test caps to her name. Only 16 of those have been full matches.

Cullen’s promising career has been peppered with injuries – she’s undergone two knee reconstructions, and foot surgery. And she’s been under the knife again, now recovering from a “knee clean-up”, and may not be available for the first tier of the test schedule – the Quad Series against Australia, England and South Africa.

One of the most accomplished wing defences, and the gutsiest leader on our netball courts, Wendy Frew, would have made a superb addition to these Silver Ferns, having just led the Southern Steel to win both the ANZ Premiership and Super Club titles. But the one-test, 32-year-old veteran was denied the chance to return to the black dress after a six-year absence when she tore her achilles in the Super Club final a few weeks ago.

So this is when the Queens of Gaborone – or the New Zealand Under 21 side who knocked down Australia to win the World Youth Cup in Gaborone, Botswana, just 10 days ago – have another chance to shine. Five of the team are trialists, including Wellington schoolgirl sensation Tiana Metuarau.

Daughter of former Silver Ferns captain and coach Wai Taumaunu, Metuarau’s selection would not be a result of nepotism. For one, Taumaunu excused herself from the national selectors panel early this year.

Metuarau would earn it on her own merits; her confidence, composure, deft feeding and shooting accuracy, clearly evident in both the Pulse and the NZU21 sides this year, are well beyond her years. But her age, her shortage of elite court-time - and the fact the Year 12 student at Wellington East Girls’ College is approaching important school exams - may count against her this time.

Monica Falkner is another self-assured goal attack from the under-21s who has a long shot at the Silver Ferns. Her shooting partner in Botswana, Maia Wilson, has already played five tests for New Zealand and her dazzling performances at the World Youth Cup will likely have been enough to see her re-included.

Young defenders Kelly Jury and Michaela Sokolich-Beatson are also compelling contenders for selection. Jury – judged player of the final in Gaborone – made her New Zealand senior debut against England in February. Sokolich-Beatson, captain of the youth team, was a game-changer in the Mystics’ defensive circle this season, but an ongoing back problem will need to be managed if she is to continue at her imposing sharp pace.

Julie Seymour has no doubts that this new generation of young stars can handle the next level. The former Silver Ferns captain was the assistant coach in Gaborone - 25 years after she starred in New Zealand’s very first World Youth Cup victory.

“The calibre of these girls is amazing,” she said on arriving home with the team. “Just to see where they have come in a couple of years through their own hard work, and through their work in the franchises… I’m really looking forward to seeing them keep developing and keep moving on.”

Building experience must be the mandate of the Silver Ferns of 2017, as they reinvent themselves before next year’s Commonwealth Games and beyond to the 2019 world championships in Liverpool. And what better way to introduce young talent to the demands of test netball than a Quad Series in August, a three-test encounter with England in September, and then four tests to wrest the Constellation Cup off their toughest adversaries, Australia, in October?

Silver Ferns trialists: Monica Falkner, Bailey Mes, Tiana Metuarau, Te Paea Selby-Rickit, Maria Tutaia, Maia Wilson, Gina Crampton, Kayla Cullen, Shannon Francois, Claire Kersten, Erikana Pedersen, Grace Rasmussen, Samantha Sinclair, Whitney Souness, Elisapeta Toeava, Karin Burger, Temalisi Fakahokotau, Katrina Grant, Kelly Jury, Phoenix Karaka, Storm Purvis, Michaela Sokolich-Beatson, Zoe Walker, Jane Watson.

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