Netball

Better leadership tops lengthy Ferns wish list

If the Silver Ferns want gold from next year’s Commonwealth Games, they need to draw up a long Christmas list.

Let me get them started. In the column of what they need to find: passion, hunger, flair, safe hands and sure feet, and leadership through the court. And in the queue of who they want to get: midcourters Grace Rasmussen and Whitney Souness, and defender Michaela Sokolich-Beatson.

Laura Langman remains on the wish list, but they know they just won’t get her.

The rest are assets that shouldn’t be that hard to conjure up, considering they’ve possessed them all before. Those players are all there, waiting just beyond the bench for their opportunity to step up.

And some stepping up needs to happen. What clearly stood out for the Silver Ferns during their dismal Constellation Cup drubbing from the Australian Diamonds over the last fortnight was a lack of leadership through the thirds of the court.

While captain Katrina Grant laboured from the back to spur on the Ferns, the message seemed to be habitually lost somewhere in the midcourt. Maria Tutaia, the only other centurion in the side who would usually lead from the front, was too often missing in action.

For more than a decade, Langman was the marshal in the middle of the Ferns’ attack. But since she left for Australia (and won’t be coming back any time soon), the current crop of midcourters appear to lack that innate leadership gene - the ability to take control of a situation when all is crumbling around them.

Like in that 16-goal loss in Sydney on Saturday, a woeful performance littered with dropped balls, miss-timed steps, breaking the line, hesitation and frustration at not being able to find players where they should be. It was not what we’ve come to expect from a team forever in the world’s top two netball superpowers.

There needs to be changes – in personnel and philosophy – but nothing too drastic. It was barely a month ago that the Ferns, having fended off the English, whopped the Diamonds by 10.

It was a full-on international season for New Zealand netball, especially for an “in-between year”, without a World Cup or Commonwealth Games. It was, in fact, the first time the Ferns had played 15 internationals in a season.

In the second half of that season, they won the Quad Series against three other world powers in netball, two of them rising fast, then had to pull out the stops to beat a more experienced and vastly improved English side for the Taini Jameson Trophy. The world champion Australians, on the other hand, had a break after the Quad Series before taking on the Ferns in the final four-test series.

There was no question that the Ferns were physically fit, and no one succumbed to a major injury. But there were definite signs of mental fatigue and quavering self-doubt by the final weekend.

Next year’s schedule won’t be tamer. It begins with another Quad series in the Northern Hemisphere, followed by a home test series in March, before the Commonwealth Games in April. The heavy schedule is there to meet commercial demands.

But weariness can’t be an excuse; netball’s semi-professional athletes must be prepared to meet those pressures.

Ferns coach Janine Southby has yet to settle on a top seven line-up, evident in the number of switches she made – especially players to different positions. So the opportunity is there for those on the fringe to push their way in.

Changing the rules to bring back the barred Langman isn’t an option. Netball NZ have again made that clear.

The three Ferns who stood out in the Constellation Cup – Temalisi Fakahokotau, Sam Sinclair and Te Paea Selby-Rickit – all had points to prove, and did so with passion and guts.

When the next Silver Ferns team is named after the Christmas camp, promising defender Sokolich-Beatson has to be brought in to the side as a reliable back-up for Grant at goal defence. Sokolich-Beatson captained the New Zealand under-21 side to victory at the World Youth Cup earlier this year, but was ruled out of Silver Ferns selection nursing a back injury.

It’s also time for Southby to take another look at Rasmussen to play against the Aussies. The current midcourt is short on her flair and adaptability.

Part of the reason Tutaia is still our most potent weapon – the player New Zealand relies on most - is her unconventionality. She needs a feeder who knows exactly how she moves and can anticipate where she will be in the next split second. A wing attack who can inherently keep out of her space, floating around the edge of the circle.

Temepara George was the best at it, especially during New Zealand’s sudden-death final victory at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. But Rasmussen, left out of the last series, has a fine understanding with Tutaia, and with eight years of international experience, should have the wisdom and respect to be a leader.

It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of the rookie Souness in the black dress. The dynamic Pulse feeder made her debut against South Africa, a game where she connected well with Tutaia, but then ruled herself out of the Australian series for family reasons.

Changing the rules to bring back the barred Langman isn’t an option. Netball NZ have again made that clear.

The eligibility rule was introduced last season to stop an exodus of our top players overseas, and keep the calibre of players in the domestic ANZ Premiership strong. As loyal and vital as Langman was to the Silver Ferns for 141 consecutive tests, she won’t be an exception to the rule.

Although, as one former Fern said to me, there should be a “crisis clause” to allow for concessions. And this, she reckons, is a crisis situation.

It was tough to watch ball being won on defence then squandered on attack. Sure, there were some questionable umpiring calls in the latest series, particularly with the interpretations of the stepping and the three-second rules - the kind of mistakes you wouldn’t expect to see players of the Ferns’ ability making repeatedly. But bringing international umpires up to speed has been a problem for the sport for decades. And the Ferns have had it drilled into them to adjust to what they’re dealt.

It was reassuring to see Fakahokotau’s hard-fought return to the Ferns. She brought more control than in her younger years, and injected some new guts and grunt to the New Zealand defence.

And for the first time in a very long time, she forced Australian captain and shooting magnate Caitlin Bassett to the bench mid-test. Unfortunately for the Ferns, Bassett’s replacement, Caitlin Thwaites, is arguably a better option for the Diamonds at goal shoot against the Ferns, because of her speed, mobility and accuracy.

That’s the trouble with the Australians. They’re in a similar rebuilding phase to New Zealand, but they’ve only got better through 2017.

There were some other shining lights for the Ferns, though. A composed Selby-Rickit proved to be a game winner under the hoop and a more-than-capable alternative for Tutaia. Sinclair, who’d struggled earlier in the season, showed plenty of grit, particularly on defence, and grew in confidence in her new role at centre.

Soon, she won’t be constantly compared to Langman. She will be recognised as her own player.

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