Lisa Alexander could be forgiven for feeling nervous.

About to face the Silver Ferns in the annual Constellation Cup series, Australia’s national netball coach is currently presiding over one of the most fresh-faced Diamonds teams in recent history.

Of her triumphant 2015 World Cup team, just three players remain, and with Caitlin Bassett and Caitlin Thwaites sharing the same bib, only two of them can be on court at one time. In contrast, New Zealand have five incumbents, with wing attack and goal keeper the only two berths to be filled by newcomers.

It isn’t a comparison that Alexander takes notice of; she expects her squad to perform, rightly pointing out that they’re all experienced at domestic level. “Our players are more than capable; they’ve had a great grounding in Suncorp Super Netball and at their training venues in their home states. They’ve done their training, they are ready and prepared and it’s my job as a coach to give them that confidence that I’ve got in their abilities, and help them to see that they can put it out on court when it counts.”

Forward thinkers, Alexander and Netball Australia have long instituted policies where players, coaches and umpires train in overlap, a mentor style program that readies them for national duties. A recent example is Courtney Bruce. With the international future of former captain Laura Geitz still undecided after maternity leave, and Sharni Layton unexpectedly ruled out of the international season for health reasons, the young Western Australian defender had to step into the breach.

Photo: Simon Leonard

“It was a deliberate strategy to make sure that Courtney trained with the defenders group (before national selection) so that she could see, hear and smell holistically exactly what we were on about in our training, and how hard we wanted her training. The difficult thing is getting that consistency across the board. And she’s getting there really well. We’ve worked hard individually with her, having confidence that she could take that step up.

“Courtney has great talent and we wanted to see that out there. I think she’d had a pretty good Quad Series overall and in general I was really pleased with the defensive group because they exceeded everyone’s expectations. They will just keep working hard and working together as a unit and supporting each other. Emily Mannix is similar, in terms of this is her first real crack at it. The good thing is that she came away with us in January to see how everything operated, and she’s just fitted in so beautifully into our system.”

Another new face to the Constellation Cup team will be Kate Moloney. Her heart-on-her-sleeve leadership style was a key factor in the Melbourne Vixens success this year, with the young team surprising many by making the inaugural Suncorp Super Netball finals. It’s that passionate nature that Alexander wants for the Diamonds.

“What we need from Kate is her energy and her leadership, her really good defensive capabilities, her ability to pick up loose ball, and just her intensity of effort over sixty minutes. And her voice! We’ve missed that voice from Sharni. We are trying to get the defenders to talk a little bit more, but it’s not easy and Kate’s given us that energy in training.”

“That positivity makes other players look better. As I say to the centre courters, it’s their role to make the goalers look good and to assist the defenders to get the job done. So, their role is vital, they generate the energy, they are the engine room. That is what we are looking for from Kate.”

Photo: Marcela Massey

In the recent Quad Series, Australia registered wins against England and South Africa, albeit in less polished performances than the public are used to seeing from them, then suffered a ten goal drubbing to New Zealand. Few of the Diamonds played to their own lofty standards and the fallout was brutal. Bassett, the new Diamonds captain was benched mid-game, vice-captain Madi Robinson was dropped and centre Kim Ravaillion was put on notice. Goal attacks Tegan Phillip and Gretel Tippett will make way for Stephanie Wood and Susan Pettitt, although that is a long pre-planned move.

While Alexander acknowledges that the team is still feeling its way together, she expects more from her players. She said, “Rav knows she has to lift her performance, it hasn’t been where it should be over the past 12 months, and she really needs to perform in this series for us. While I know the captaincy is an added pressure for CBass, she needs to balance that with performing her role, and as I’ve said to her and Gabi Simpson (co vice-captain), beating your opponent is number one, the most important thing. The rest we will work through together, as we always do. We’ve got to get the job done out on court, and all the rest is irrelevant if we’re not winning.”

Photo: Simon Leonard

“We were disappointed with our final game (of the Quad Series), because we didn’t get to show the skill that we’ve got. I really challenged the group around that time, ‘Were they prepared psychologically for that game?’, ‘Were we a little bit complacent, did we think it was just going to happen?’ and ‘What did we learn from that?’

“It was pretty hard to put our finger on (the factors behind the loss), but I think it’s been a little bit of a general trend in these Quad Series that we’ve got to learn from. If you look at the January series, we had a great first test against New Zealand, we really jumped them, and we probably had our worst performance of the tour against England, and just managed to get out with the win by one goal. Our performance also dropped off across this Quad Series, so it’s something we need to look at. Through tournaments we just can’t afford to have that up and down nature of performance.”

Never one to hide behind her players, Alexander thoroughly reviewed her own performance with trusted mentors, selectors and particularly fellow staff members. She noted, “They were there, they knew what we did well, what we didn’t, and what we are trying to achieve. I’ve certainly learned a lot from that series. We have a very different group, and it teaches me not to make assumptions. Maybe I didn’t give the leaders enough guidance on how to manage certain aspects of the tour, so certainly for this next series we’ve made sure all of those complications have been looked at in a lot of detail.”

A fascinating aspect of the growth of women’s sport is the public flak that Alexander copped after her team’s defeat by New Zealand. In years gone by, it wouldn’t have rated much of a mention, but the landscape is changing in Australia.

“There is a lot of negative talk around – if we drop one game it’s like the world has fallen in. It is a very competitive market now and I’m very aware of that. For example, the Matildas are doing really well at the moment. I’m very happy for them, but it makes it very clear that if we are not successful, we don’t get the print and the notoriety that we’ve had in the past. One of the reasons it’s important to keep winning is that our time in the sun continues to grow.” Alexander explained.

“We know it’s extra pressure but you have to embrace it, this is what it’s all about – performing at the top of the ladder. It’s tough, it’s uncompromising! We are now in a much more cluttered world of achievement in Australia, because finally women’s sport is being taken notice of. It’s always been there, it’s just never had serious attention placed on it like it has now. With that comes the responsibility that we have to perform really well.”

Photo: Simon Leonard

The Diamonds head to Auckland on Sunday for the first leg of the Constellation Cup, playing a local side before they take on the Silver Ferns. They’ve thoroughly prepared for the different style of play that they will face, with New Zealand coach, Janine Southby, a master of zone defence. Different to the body on body style that the Australians adopt, using the zone players mark space, clogging up clear pathways through court and to goal.

Lisa emphasises, “We’ve put a lot of attention on it. Zone, zone, zone. Overdoing it, crowding up space, making it more difficult, so that we can feel as well prepared as possible, and play lots of different attacking strategies to counteract that.

“It’s going to be a chess game played at exhausting pace.”

Southby took the reins after the 2015 Netball World Cup, and two years later Lisa now has a greater understanding of what she brings to the Silver Ferns. “She has really taken on the high performance approach. She has been very deliberate in taking on athletes that are really fit. Number two, I think she is also listening to how we are trying to be unpredictable, and she is also trying to put some unpredictability around her team as well. And she wants to win, she is definite about it. She is not going to kowtow to all the naysayers in New Zealand who got stuck into her a bit earlier. So this Quad series showed that she has the ability to turn around her result really quickly, and to have that tough encounter against England and then back up against us so well was a credit to her.”

“Certainly, we are very, very focused on the fact that we have to work a lot harder against New Zealand.”

 

Key talking points

Australia

The attacking end misfired for much of the Quad Series, and attention will be paid to how it functions with fresh personnel. Goal attacks Steph Wood and Susan Pettitt will bring their craft and wile to the game. Pettitt is vastly experienced, while Wood is an exciting fresh talent with great strength and timing.

Liz Watson was cool under fire during the Quad Series, and should replicate this in tandem with either the experienced Kim Ravaillion or the passion and grit of Kate Moloney at centre. Look for a vastly improved performance.

 

New Zealand

The Silver Ferns now have complete unpredictability in the goal circle, with Maria Tutaia, Bailey Mes and Te Paea Selby-Rickit all genuine options at goal attack and goal shooter. In the Quad Series, Mes was moved out to goal attack where she was a revelation. In addition to her high accuracy, her athleticism and defensive skills were showcased as she spear-headed the Fern’s defensive zone. In the match against England she picked up six intercepts, an achievement that any defender would be proud to own. Mes will be a huge thorn in the Diamonds side, particularly if she continues to be used at goal attack.