This World Cup’s for you, Casey Kopua
Against all odds, the Silver Ferns have won netball's World Cup for the first time in 16 years. And, fittingly, one of the legends of the game sealed their incredible victory.
In the big moments in sport, the best stand up.
And with just nine minutes left in Casey Kopua’s stellar netball career, she soared - snatching the intercept that would ultimately make the difference.
One of the greatest players New Zealand netball has ever known, Kopua came back from retirement for this moment.
In the grand final of netball’s World Cup, the 34-year-old goal defence – one of the self-proclaimed 'fossils' of the Silver Ferns – timed her trademark leap perfectly to steal the ball from the hands of Australia’s lethal shooters.
“It’s totally all worth it,” said Kopua, the woman of the match, of her return to the game - as her daughter, Maia, licked the salty sweat from her mother’s shoulder. “When you’ve got the belief like that, there’s nothing that can stop you. I love my team and my support so much, and I’m so glad that I came back.”
Fittingly, when the ball Kopua pilfered finally made it to the other end of the court, patiently passed through Silver Ferns hands, it was young-gun shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio who converted the turnover that would essentially give New Zealand the one-goal buffer they needed to win.
This one moment epitomised all that it took to seal this most unlikely of victories, from a team that, 12 months ago, was so broken they couldn’t beat Malawi. Who, for the first time in history, had fallen out of the world's top three.
Victory came from a combination of the battle-hardened veterans, who’d always been denied a world title in their long careers, and the next generation, hungry and composed – playing a style conceived by their genius coach.
So much of the credit for this victory has to go Noeline Taurua, the former Silver Fern who took on a job few would’ve wanted. And she did it as a part-time coach. Imagine the All Blacks being led by a part-timer?
Taurua had the courage and the foresight to look back in time and bring two of the greats of the game – Kopua and Laura Langman – back to the black dress.
And she revived the culture and the style of netball New Zealand has long been renowned for. Flair, finesse and strength on the ball; tight zone defence, marking the space. And self-belief.
Faced with 11 months to turn the team’s fortunes around, Taurua proved unflappable.
She felt “tired, calm, weird and overwhelmed” in the aftermath of the 52-51 victory over the defending world champions, the Diamonds – a typically “epic encounter”. It was the seventh time in World Cup history the final was decided by one goal.
Although the Silver Ferns had stamped their mark as a team of incredibly versatile players, Taurua kept the faith in her star seven all through those final 60 minutes.
This is how it played out. After a shuddering start, under massive pressure from the Diamonds, and with a little luck going their way, the Silver Ferns stayed in step, 10-10, at the end of the first quarter.
Jane Watson, the goal keeper of the tournament, was again on fire from the first whistle. Langman, with some of her best vision of this World Cup, kept finding Folau under the hoop. They found themselves up 28-25 at halftime, thanks to a Katrina Rore steal with just a minute to go, that finally broke the deadlock of the quarter.
The Ferns showed patience, not afraid to look back to the transverse line for help – a typical Taurua move. The gap opened to seven goals in the third quarter - the championship quarter as it's called - but the Diamonds kept coming back. New Zealand led by four at the final break.
When the Diamonds closed to within one, the Ferns didn't buckle. Then Kopua's extraordinary leap made the difference.
Regardless of the final outcome, Taurua called her Silver Ferns winners, after they’d beaten favourites England in the semi-final. They were the underdogs who’d powered their way into the final when, before this tournament, few had given them hope of even standing on the dais.
And they did it all with fortitude, determination and humility.
Taurua’s PURE vision
In the players’ meeting room in their Liverpool hotel, the walls were lined with cute kids’ drawings of the Silver Ferns, and large posters of the players with the mantra that’s driven them through this World Cup campaign.
Taurua introduced the “100 percent PURE” ethos to her players last Christmas.
The PURE acronym stood for “Playing to win; being United and ready; Ruthless; and Explosive.”
‘United’, she described as building off-court so when the players came together, it would be a source of power. She encouraged each player to define what ‘ruthless’ meant to them – whether it was preparing their bodies or their mental attitude, or being competitive on every ball, and treasuring possession of it.
Taurua wanted the Ferns to return to an ‘explosive’ style that would make them competitive again. “We needed players who had the engine, the drive and the capability of playing that style. Hence the bloody yo-yos and fitness standards we put in,” she laughed.
Her coaching style is undoubtedly outside the box. It’s a blend of the processes and structures – two words we’ve heard a lot of in the past 10 days – you’d expect from an international coach, with a holistic approach.
She constantly tells her players how much she believes in what they’re capable of, creating a self-confidence that had been bled out of the Ferns we watched 18 months ago.
Her wider Silver Ferns squad made players fight for their places, and meet the challenges she set.
Taurua pared it back to basics, impressing the importance of high physical standards. She set exacting fitness benchmarks – to meet the demands of eight games in 10 days - that eventually ruled some contenders out.
She encouraged instinctive play but brought in new structures for the team to drive, and return to when they found themselves slipping behind.
“You know, there are no rights and wrongs in how you coach. In the end it’s all about getting results,” Taurua said when she got the job back in August last year.
After a damning review into their Commonwealth Games downfall, finishing a lowly fourth, Netball New Zealand needed to get it right with their coach for the World Cup. Their flexibility in allowing Taurua to continue her coaching job with the Sunshine Coast Lightning was an astute move.
Taurua was equally smart bringing on her old Silver Fern room-mate, Debbie Fuller, as her right-hand woman to watch over the New Zealand players while Taurua lived across the Tasman. She knew she couldn’t do it on her own, so called on former Ferns shooter Donna Wilkins, midcourter Marg Foster and defender Yvonne Willering to work with individual players.
Fuller is in awe of Taurua’s leadership. “It’s amazing being led by a leader like Noels. A leader who is massively in-tune with what you’re going into, who’s very clear about what she wants from people,” she says.
“She’s genuine, authentic and she understand the responsibility of coaching the Silver Ferns.”
And, as Taurua’s captain, Laura Langman, says: “There's not one player in New Zealand who wouldn't follow her into war.”
The return of Rore
Spare a thought for former Silver Ferns captain Katrina Rore, and what might not have been.
Dropped after the nightmare of 2018, she got married, changed her attitude towards training and playing, led the Pulse to victory in the ANZ Premiership, and made it back into the side.
And then Rore was side-lined again. Allowances were made to take her to England with a calf strain, suffered in their Sunshine Coast training camp.
The very promising Michaela Sokolich-Beatson, who flew to Liverpool as a back-up, could have easily replaced Rore if she'd failed to regain her fitness. But after a rigorous rehabilitation, in true Rore fashion, she couldn't be stopped striding on to centre-court; she would never be content being a bench-warmer.
She’s been a revelation at wing defence – another of Taurua’s trump cards. She played the tournament with guts and brains, and her experience at this level was irreplaceable.
The ‘Fossils’ final hurrah
Now New Zealand’s most capped shooter on 146 tests after the final, Maria Folau revealed early in the World Cup that she, Langman and Kopua referred to themselves as the “Fossilettes”- like a 1960s girl band. The fourth World Cup for all three, it was their last chance to win the world title – and that drove them.
Taurua’s decision to coax Langman and Kopua back into the Silver Ferns was probably the team’s fortune-changer (other than Taurua’s own appointment).
This was Langman’s 159th test, and could well be her last. Her leadership and domination of her on-court opponents meant she played the most minutes of any Fern, and at centre, the team pivoted around her.
Having come out of retirement, Kopua always made it clear this was her final hurrah on the netball court, and she was the rock in the Ferns’ defence. She disrupted the circle, topped the list for deflections, and showed her strength of eking the most out of her defence partners, in particular Jane Watson.
It’s hard to remember a time when Folau played with so much confidence and shooting precision, playing a position (goal shoot) that was almost foreign to her. She finished with 212 from 241 attempts at goal, an outstanding 88 percent.
It could easily have swung the opposite way – if her self-assurance had been eroded by the very public furore around her rugby star husband, Israel – but, as Taurua confirmed, Folau chose to make it her mission to prove herself to doubters.
Allowing Folau and Langman to play in Australia’s super-league at the end of their careers was another masterstroke.
The advance of the next generation of leaders
Even if three or four key players now retire, there is enough capability in the Silver Ferns to carry them through.
Just 28, Ameliaranne Ekenasio proved she can lift a team’s performance by leading on attack. She came to the fore in the second half of the crossover match with Australia, and carried her confidence and coolness through to the English semifinal. She led from the front again in the final.
Ekenasio, mother of two-year-old Ocean, shot 162 from 183 (89 percent) and established herself as the No. 1 goal attack, to Folau’s goal shoot.
There was plenty of debate around the re-selection of shooters Bailey Mes and Te Paea Selby-Rickit, who'd been dropped soon after the Commonwealth Games. But both stood strong under pressure in Liverpool - Mes shooting at 88 percent accuracy and Selby-Rickit, 94 percent. Selby-Rickit’s fitness has definitely improved under Taurua’s regime.
Gina Crampton and Shannon Saunders, both unwanted when the Ferns went to Liverpool in January, shared the responsibility at wing attack. At her best – and that was in this final - Crampton’s vision with her feeding and her stability were superb. Saunders showed an ability to come on as a gamechanger, withstanding the physicality and punching through.
Watson snatched the most intercepts for the Ferns, some of them breath-taking, and will ably take on the mantle handed over by Kopua.
And there were signs that Phoenix Karaka and Karin Burger – the youngest players in the side – will be capable of stepping up into the starting seven.
Make that the world champions' starting seven.