Selection of the Australian Diamonds 2017/18 squad has been an exhaustive, and exhausting, process for national coach Lisa Alexander. She’s watched every Suncorp Super Netball game this year, travelled the breadth of the country visiting athletes and with her fellow selectors, made some tough decisions about the makeup of the team. That their choices will reward young stars of the future, but also potentially end careers, is not a responsibility that Alexander takes lightly.

Susan Pettitt lines up a shot against Jamaica in 2010. Photo: Simon Leonard

To narrow Australia’s large pool of talent into a working squad is difficult and Lisa admits it has given her the occasional sleepless night. “You do get better at selection as a coach and learn to take it in your stride and be really well prepared. I’ve got to remind myself that there are players that are really excited about their selection and I have to be very positive about that. I can’t be too caught up in negativity and emotional responses.

“Not including Nat Medhurst in the squad was a terribly difficult decision, but it hasn’t happened overnight. We made our final decision last week and that was part of a whole jigsaw puzzle of selection. I was preparing myself for it, and knew that it possibly could come, and that’s always hard.”

National selection is an encompassing process that includes players’ performances in domestic and international matches, and high-performance outcomes. Lisa explained, “We’ve got an in-depth rating system that we have to input into our athlete management system. Our criteria has been set for a long time, and it’s very flexible in that it allows for someone who hasn’t had a great season domestically, but if they’ve played well for Australia recently, we can bring that to the selection table.”

With the new Diamonds squad chosen, the 18 players will meet in July for a week-long training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport. A key theme for the camp will be flexibility, with most athletes expected to play at least two positions. Lisa revealed, “I spoke to Liz (Watson), Madi (Robinson) and Rav (Kim Ravaillion) about that just yesterday. For example, Rav can play all three midcourt positions and I’ve said to her that she will need to do that. Gabi Simpson also has goal defence credentials, and we need April Brandley and Jo Weston playing wing defence as well. That’s going to be in our training plans, so that we can manage the unexpected in a major tournament.”

With room for up to 22 players in her squad, Lisa will select some invitees to join the group. One will be newcomer Kristiana Manu’a, who ruptured her achilles tendon late in 2016, shortly after making her national debut. Jess Anstiss may be added after her World Youth Cup duties are finished, while another possibility is Laura Geitz, who has yet to formalise her plans. According to Lisa, “Laura is still on leave from international and domestic sport – she hasn’t retired. She is yet to make her final decision about what she is going to do. However, I’ve had a number of conversations with her about how she can re-enter the Diamonds program and one of those is to work through the training partner and invitee-avenue that I have available.”

Also on the July camp menu is selection of the next Australian captain, following several acting appointments that have been in place since Geitz went on maternity leave. According to Lisa, “Laura understands that we don’t necessarily need her as captain of the team and we won’t be holding that position open just in case she returns. We may take our time selecting it and go with a leadership group that we will be voting for during the camp. That hasn’t occurred for 18 months so it’s due and time and that next group will take us through to the Commonwealth Games.”

Two slightly different Australian teams have been chosen to contest upcoming international matches. Ten of the twelve players remain in both groups, while goal attacks Tegan Philip and Gretel Tippett will contest the Quad series, and Steph Wood and Susan Pettitt the Constellation Cup. Based on those performances a final team of 12, plus two further squad members, will travel to England in January 2018 for a series against New Zealand, England and South Africa.

Lisa said, “The group of 14 that we take will include the next two in, not training partners, so it will be a very experienced crew that goes overseas. It’s likely that will be as close to the Commonwealth Games team that we will get, hence us looking at the four different goal attacks this year. The final team will be announced next February. So there is always an outside possibility that some others will be added to the squad and they can make their way into the team. Paige Hadley was a case in point during the 2015 World Cup year. She wasn’t initially in the squad, got added, and then made her way into the team.”

One of the biggest but most exciting challenges ahead for Lisa will be replacing a wealth of defensive experience. Following the retirements of Julie Corletto, Bec Bulley and Clare McMeniman, and the uncertainty remaining around Laura Geitz, it will be the most internationally inexperienced sector of the Diamonds. Sharni Layton, April Brandley and relative newcomers Courtney Bruce and Jo Weston have been selected in the subgroup of four to fill the goal defence and goal keeper roles. Lisa said, “Courtney has plugged away very well and tirelessly, and I’m very pleased with what she’s done at the Fever. Jo Weston has had a break out season. Those two were in the World Youth Cup team of 2013, and it’s now time for them to put themselves forward in that group.”

Lisa acknowledged that while some of her stars have had quiet domestic seasons, she is delighted by the form of others. “Caity Thwaites has been fantastic, and I reminded her to keep a video of her top 10 performances, because she has really added to that list this year. Liz Watson is another who did everything we asked her to do from a coaching perspective, and she put that into her game this year. As a coach, you can’t ask more than that. She’s a great athlete, but more than that, she is a really good person and adds so much to our group in the way that she goes about her business. She’s a fantastic leader in the Vixens and we hope that she’ll continue that with the Diamonds.”

Susan Pettitt booked her place in the Diamonds squad following a series of strong international and domestic performances this year. “She was terrific in January and that really cemented in my mind that she was capable of doing what was necessary when it matters. She understands the defensive efforts that I require, and her smarts and ability to play with lots of combinations means that she is very flexible and adaptable. She can play three positions for us, and that’s a great advantage.”

While Steph Wood has eased her way back into goal attack this year following knee surgery, her improvement has been a revelation for Lisa, who said of her selection, “People need to understand that it’s not just the ability to run for 60 minutes. You have to be powerful and strong, and you have to be able to shoot. If you can’t shoot, it’s not happening. We’re very happy with Steph’s progress after her surgery.

“Nobody wants to work harder on her conditioning than Steph and she understands that, but she had to have that surgery and we have to be careful of that. She’s strong as an ox, very smart, and has real capabilities that we are only tipping the edge of so far. I’m really happy with how Sunshine Coast have monitored her workload this year, together with CBass who has her foot issue, so they’ve done a magnificent job in that respect.”

By far the most difficult decision for the selectors was omitting Medhurst from not just the Australian team, but the entire squad. Lisa explained, “You look at it inside out and upside down. It’s never an easy decision to potentially end someone’s career, but sometimes a decision like this needs to happen. We have great depth in the goal attack position and it was just time.” While it appears that future international selection is unlikely for the three-times Commonwealth Games and Netball World Cup star, Lisa doesn’t underestimate her.

“We know that Nat can play with CBass, and I thought she had some brilliant games with Kaylia this year. That’s a really exciting pairing, and I think we’ve seen just the tip of the iceberg. Nat’s decided not to retire from internationals, she’s taken it on the chin and she’s going to try and fight back, and that’s what I admire so much about her. She is such a great competitor.”

Lisa is a close follower of social media, and understands the angst that many fans are experiencing after the omission of players such as Ash Brazill, Kristina Brice and particularly Medhurst. However, with the inside knowledge that the selectors have, a new team to shape for upcoming pinnacle events, and a proven track record as senior coach, she stands by the choices made. “We have many challenges ahead, but I think this team will give us the best chance to defend our Commonwealth Games title.”

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