Bright new Zim Gems outshone by Silver Ferns

African nations have a habit of either shocking or winning hearts at Netball World Cups.

Irene van Dyk’s South African Proteas startled the Silver Ferns in Birmingham in 1995 to make the World Cup final, after more than two decades in apartheid isolation.

In 2007, it was the Malawi Queens who won over the crowd with their offbeat style and an extraordinary victory dance – with full-court roll – after finishing fifth in Auckland.

The Uganda She-Cranes – and their outstanding young shooter Peace Proscovia, who disobeyed her father to play netball – rose from virtually nowhere to eighth in the world four years ago.

And, so far in 2019, it’s the Zim Gems, Zimbabwe’s national netball side, who’ve become the darlings of this World Cup in Liverpool.

With their loud and melodious band of supporters, and their athletic, inventive and brave netball, Zimbabwe have already taken a few teams by surprise in their first-ever World Cup.  

But, in spite of a strong start, the world No. 14 Gems could not shock the Silver Ferns, who overcame them with speed, composure and stealth in the first game of crossover pool play on Monday night.  

With their repertoire of one-handed and no-look passes, the Gems led by two goals early in the contest. But the Ferns quickly took control – as you’d expect from a team with so much more experience – to rack up a 79-36 victory and continue on their unbeaten march towards the World Cup semifinals.

It was the first time the Silver Ferns and Zimbabwe had ever met on court. But the New Zealanders knew to expect a physical encounter, having watched the Zim Gems thoroughly rattle reigning world champions Australia in their second game of the tournament (the Aussies still winning 73-37).

After the toughest challenge the Ferns have endured so far, their coach Noeline Taurua called Zimbabwe “unorthodox, bolshy and strong”, and was proud of the way her team absorbed their pressure.

And while the man at the head of the Zim Gems side, former basketball coach Lloyd Makumbe, conceded that they had lost to a better side, he wasn’t convinced that the Silver Ferns were the best team they’d come up against so far.

“I would say Australia is a better side than New Zealand, despite New Zealand scoring six more goals. We were trying some new combinations – it wasn’t the best of our team,” he said.

Whether Makumbe is right or not will become clearer on Thursday night, when the Silver Ferns finally go head-to-head with the Australian Diamonds, before the top four are decided. 

Even before Zimbabwe won two games in the first stage of pool play – defeating Sri Lanka by 30 goals in their opening game, then No. 8 Northern Ireland by just two – to survive the first cut of this World Cup, they’d already made history. And they’d done it hard.

They finally qualified for the pinnacle of netball contests - putting them one step ahead of the country’s more beloved Warriors football team, who have never reached World Cup status. 

Netball isn’t new to Zimbabwe. In fact the England netball team’s first international tour, in 1956, was to the colony then known as Southern Rhodesia.

Zimbabwe will clearly win the prize for loudest and most colourful supporters at the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images.

In their first return trip to the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe have enjoyed almost a home game advantage, thanks to their supporters.

Their large band of fans play drums, wave flags and sing and dance. They shriek with joy whenever the Gems score or steal the ball.

“I’ve never seen such supporters in my life,” said Zimbabwe’s captain Perpetua Siyachiteama. “It’s so motivated the girls.”

Irene van Dyk, the Silver Ferns legend who made her first World Cup appearance for South Africa in 1995, has been thrilled to see Zimbabwe make such an impact in their debut.

“Their supporters are so excited to be here, they make noises with every pass the girls pass, and once they score a goal, it’s jubilation all round. They take ‘living every pass’ literally,” says van Dyk, who's led a New Zealand tour group to Liverpool.

“They hand out flags to everyone sitting around them too. They are definitely crowd favourites because they’re such passionate and lovely people.

“When you see countries like Zimbabwe coming through, it makes you realise how lucky we are in New Zealand to have what we have. If they had the same money and the resources, boy oh boy, it would make for some interesting viewing!”

A dearth of funding threatened to keep the Zim Gems from making it to Liverpool.

Zimbabwe qualified after finishing second to Uganda at the African championships last August. But without government funding, they struggled to even train together.

A church school in Harare's high-density suburb of Mbare offered the team free accommodation for a training camp. They slept on thin mats, and were without proper training kit or food “good enough for sportspersons”.

So they made an impassioned plea through a video directed at powerful women in Zimbabwe society – the likes of Minister of Sport and former Olympic champion swimmer Kirsty Coventry, and First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwato – to help them get to Liverpool.

The video quickly went viral, and reached the right people. With the support of the government, sponsors and crowd-funding, the Gems made it to their first World Cup.

“Their World Cup appearance has brought in some positives and appreciation that usually lack when it comes to women in sport,” Ellina Mhlanga wrote in Bulawayo’s daily newspaper, The Chronicle. “And it has been encouraging to see Zimbabweans from different backgrounds coming together to give the needed support at this stage.”

The Zim Gems have a number of talented players, and don’t rely on one tall shooter for their success. In their latest match, goal keep Rudo Karume snatched two intercepts from the Silver Ferns, Siyachiteama marshalled her troops from the midcourt, while goal shoot Pauline Jani did not miss with her 13 shots.

No matter where Zimbabwe finish up, their campaign will have been a success. But it’s most likely that South Africa will be the African nation to have the biggest impact in Liverpool - signalling their intent by stunning world No. 2 Jamaica, 55-52, in pool play.

Back in the Silver Ferns after being dropped in January, Te Paea Selby-Rickit shot 100 percent against the Zim Gems. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

The Silver Ferns carried on shuffling their 12-strong squad throughout the 60 minutes on Monday, and never lost a beat with every combination change.  

It’s been an impressive showing of their versatility, with all but wing attack Gina Crampton playing in at least two positions. But, nonetheless, Crampton has been able to focus on securing the wing attack role as her own, and her vision and drive gave her the MVP honour in her latest performance.

Bailey Mes has proved herself at goal shoot, goal attack and wing attack in Liverpool, as has Phoenix Karaka in all three defensive roles (she combined strongly with Casey Kopua in the circle against the Gems).

Returning solidly from her calf injury, Katrina Rore has stood out in her new role of wing defence, and took two intercepts off Zimbabwe.

All four Silver Ferns shooters have had virtually equal court time, notching up impressive shooting percentages in the 80s and 90s. Te Paea Selby-Rickit continued her return to international form, finishing the latest game at goal shoot with a perfect 23 from 23. But the true pressure on the shooters has yet to come.

The Silver Ferns will round out the preliminary stages against Northern Ireland at 2am on Wednesday morning (NZ time), and Australia at 9.30am Thursday.

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