A wave of excitement and a whiff of controversy has surrounded the announcement of the 2018/19Australian Diamonds squad.

A blend of fresh and familiar faces will carry Australian hopes into next year’s Netball World Cup, while some notable retirements and omissions have sparked social media chatter.

The Australian Diamonds. Photo: Simon Leonard.

The three selectors – Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander, Anne Sargeant and Michelle Wilkins – have chosen a strong group of players that they believe fits their international needs.

Alexander said, “The squad has to be modern, contemporary, up to date in keeping ahead of trends in netball, while recognising current form. All those factors put together might seem contentious in selection but we’re trying to do the best job we can.”

“We also need athletes who are resilient and adaptable. Who can tough it out, if it’s tough. They must be able to perform day in, day out, which they must do at the World Cup. We’ve got five matches in a row, so there’s no rest time. There’s no easy games these days either, where you can expect a big margin. So, we need athletes with physical and mental strength and I think this group has that.”

“The athletes must also be prepared to put the work in past the Suncorp Super Netball season. That’s part of our decision making as well, because they’re going to be doing the hard yards when other netballers are having a break. International netball doesn’t rest.”

 

Who’s new?
There are three new additions: Jess Anstiss, Jamie-Lee Price, and Sarah Klau, although the latter did receive a late call up last year when Emily Mannix was injured. Although she’d previously retired, Renae Ingles is on the comeback trail and a welcome addition to the group. A former match-winning Diamond, she has experience of big campaigns that will be vital for World Cup preparation.

Alexander said, “There are three young players who have come up through our athlete pathways. Sarah had the benefit of playing in Fast5 last year, while Jess and Jamie-Lee were at the World Youth Cup. That’s important data for us because we need athletes who can repeat their skills daily, not just on a weekly basis as in Suncorp Super Netball.”

“It’s a privilege to choose a squad and I have the joy of hearing the excitement in the young player’s voices as they achieve a dream. Even Renae, who’s already been there, is a world champion, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist – to hear how much she wanted to play for the Diamonds again, I could have bottled it.”

Renae Ingles. Photo: Simon Leonard.

“But as I reminded our young players, this selection is just the start of a lot of hard work. We’re very confident that they’ll make a big difference to our squad. They’ve shown their ability to knuckle down and do the hard training off court in the gym, and that is necessary. We need these young athletes to have rigour and resilience.”

On the topic of Ingles’ return, Alexander said, “We’ve been tracking her performance over the past months, and how much she’s added to the Vixens in terms of her experience and her ability to attack the ball down court.”

“Renae is playing the kind of game that we need at the international level where she shuts down her opponent, gets good hands up and over and puts real pressure on which contributes to a great defence unit for the Vixens.”

“She’s got enormous logistics to take care of, but she’s very motivated to get out there and assist her teammates, firstly in the squad. Renae always puts the team first, not herself, and doesn’t take it for granted that she’ll get picked.”

 

Who has retired
In heart-wrenching news for fans, Laura Geitz and Madi Robinson announced their international retirements midweek, while Susan Pettitt and Sharni Layton will completely end their playing careers at the end of the 2018 season. The loss of experience from each sector of the court will be challenging to replace, particularly in the back end.

Madi Robinson (left), Laura Geitz (centre) and Susan Pettitt (right) have all retired. Photo: Simon Leonard.

The remaining five defenders have just 44 caps of senior international experience between them, although are used to playing in the pressure cooker of Australia’s domestic league.

Alexander said, “I want to pay tribute to our four retiring Diamonds, because all of them in different ways have added so much to our program.”

“Netball has really complimented their lives, they’re great people, and you can’t ever replace people in that regard, certainly not straight away. But this is an opportunity for the youngsters to really add their mark to this group and carry on the ‘Sisters in Arms’ legacy that Laura spoke about so beautifully in her press conference.”

“It’s not easy when that level of experience retires. You can’t buy it, but we will use what we have in the group. The current leaders, Gabi (Simpson) and C-Bass (Caitlin Bassett), have had the Commonwealth Games under their belt now and will continue to grow in that role. However, we will go through our normal leadership program with Ray McLean and Leading Teams at our next camp, and the squad will determine who that leadership group is.”

 

Who was unavailable or omitted
While in spectacular form, Kim Green and Rebecca Bulley both opted out of being available for international selection, while former Diamonds members Natalie Medhurst, Ashley Brazill, Paige Hadley, Caitlyn Nevins and Kristiana Manu’a were available but overlooked.

There may be a glimmer for Diamonds’ hopefuls, with the selectors still looking to add to their group.
Alexander said, “As you can see from our squad size we’re still looking and I think that’s really important to make sure we tell the netball public. We haven’t finished, but this is a squad based on what we believe we need at this stage for the Diamonds.”

Australia claimed silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. Photo: Simon Leonard.

“I’m one of the first people to say that Ash has been very consistent for Collingwood this year, and she’s had a lot of court time. Sometimes that probably gets people’s attention and obviously the way that Ash plays, the spectacular way she goes about her business is fantastic. We recognise that and we are still looking, so she does still have an opportunity to make her way in. If in the last few games she really puts out those great performances, is able to really stop her opponent from being influential, that’s what we will look at.”

“We will also look at Nat Medhurst. Her challenge across this next period is to continue her form. We understand she has a role to play in her team, but we’d obviously like to see her shooting more goals. She’s also contributing greatly to West Coast Fever’s winning form. When teams can shut her down, it seems that’s when teams get on top of the Fever.”

“So, she’s got a very important role to play and we will be watching her progress very closely, as we do all the players – the Caitlyn Nevins, the Paige Hadleys, the Verity Charles. There’s a few out there that are really putting their hand up and we are going to have a very close look at them and make our decisions based on this period and finals.”

 

Why has the squad been picked earlier than usual?
The Diamonds squad is usually picked at the end of the Australian domestic season, but selectors had their hands forced this year.

Alexander said, “We’ve got a Quad Series basically smack against the end of the finals. We have to get our players into their Diamond’s training programs, which is usually a six week process, and particularly for those teams who aren’t in finals, their Diamonds players must keep training and preparing for international netball.”
“We didn’t want to do it right on finals, so that clubs had time to process the information about whether players were in or out of squads.”

 

Shooters: Caitlin Bassett, Caitlin Thwaites, Tegan Phillip, Gretel Tippett, Steph Wood.
The shooting squad has remained the same, minus the loss of Susan Pettitt to retirement. The five incumbents have very different styles of play, allowing Alexander to change up her team as needed.

Consistency has been somewhat of an issue for all but Gretel Tippett, who’s been a stand out this year. She’s combined athleticism and defensive pressure with volume and accuracy in the circle, and is the only goal attack averaging over 90%. The two goal shooters are certain inclusions, and so it’s likely that the fourth and final place in the twelve will be a battle between Tegan Phillip and Stephanie Wood.

Steph Wood. Photo: Simon Leonard.

Selectors chose not to recall Nat Medhurst, who’s been in sparkling form for the Fever, albeit low in shooting volume. She would have to produce her absolute best in the remaining rounds to force her way into a strongly contested position.

Lisa Alexander commented, “While conservative netball people tend to like a more typical way to play, Gretel has taken the game to a whole new level. She has been extremely consistent this year. I know the work she did pre-season to get herself the best chance to be selected for Commonwealth Games. She was jumping for joy to be selected in the squad which she didn’t take for granted.”

 

Midcourters: Jess Anstiss, Renae Ingles, Kate Moloney, Jamie-Lee Price, Kim Ravaillion, Gabi Simpson, Liz Watson.
The battle for midcourt places in the final twelve will be intriguing, with only Liz Watson looking a certainty at the moment.

A Commonwealth Games review identified the need for the Diamonds to have a more defensive midcourt, and this has been reflected in selection. Historically strong in wing attack/centre players, the new look squad instead features centre/wing defence specialists in the search for greater shut down capacity through court. Stopping the ball, or forcing handling errors before play reaches the circle, is crucial due to outstanding opposition shooters in the modern game.

There is room in the final team for just one specialist wing defence, and the current vice-captain, Gabi Simpson, will have a fight on her hands to maintain ascendancy. If she is pushed out of the starting seven, it will most likely be by Ingles’ depth of experience and stellar form.

Kim Ravaillion. Photo: Simon Leonard.

However, it’s centre Kim Ravaillion who will face the biggest battle to maintain her position after another inconsistent season, particularly with young guns Anstiss and Price snapping at her heels.

Wing attack Liz Watson has been close to unstoppable this season, with the versatile Anstiss and Ravaillion most likely to provide her with support.

Attacking specialists Paige Hadley and Caitlyn Nevins have been omitted from the squad, while Madi Robinson has retired from international netball. However, the selectors have tipped that they might add another wing attack to the group.

Alexander said, “As you can see there is quite a bit of emphasis on the centre/wing defence section of our squad. It’s been mentioned on social media that we’ve got four wing defences. We don’t. They might be playing for their club in that position, but they train across a variety of positions. I have a close relationship with the Suncorp Super Netball coaches and they understand that requirement for our international game. There’s a lot of strength in the players we’ve picked in the centre court.”

“It’s not just a matter of gains or statistics out on court, we’re looking at the whole picture, the connections with a whole unit and then how that player contributes to a winning performance from that team as well. We’ve got to get the midcourt selection right, because at international level there’s a lot of very big, powerful athletes in the centre court that we’ve got to contend with.”

“We’ve lost an experienced wing attack and while we’ve got a wonderful wing attack who’s performing week in, week out in Liz Watson, we are still looking. So there definitely is another position in the centre court that we’re looking for.”

“Rav (Kim Ravaillion) herself would say that she’s lucky to be selected. She knew that it was a line ball decision about her coming into the squad or not, but we needed her experience. She knows there’s a challenge there now, she’s got real competition in the centre position.”

“She needs to lift. She knows that and she understands the areas she has to lift in. She also needs to show us that she can play in other positions, play them very well and get back into the form we’ve seen in the past. Even in the recent Quad Series in January, I saw some of her old skills and talents. She has to recapture that and hopefully with a few tweaks in her training program she can.”

 

Defenders: April Brandley, Jo Weston, Courtney Bruce, Sarah Klau, Emily Mannix.
Courtney Bruce has been in stunning form this season and sits in the top two for all defensive statistics, while April Brandley and Jo Weston have also earned their places in the squad. Following the retirements of Laura Geitz and Sharni Layton, the final place in the twelve will be a close race between Emily Mannix and Sarah Klau.

Mannix has the advantage of an existing combination with Vixens’ teammate and goal defence Weston, while Klau was strong in the 2017 Fast5 tournament and sits in the top eight for deflections this season.

Jo Weston. Photo: Simon Leonard.

It’s the most inexperienced sector of the court, with the five chosen having just 44 international test caps between them. This may play into Ingles’ hands, as the wealth of knowledge she’s gained over numerous international campaigns could be vital to such a young group. Bruce’s leadership experience with West Coast Fever this year will be invaluable.

Alexander said, “I want to make a fuss of Sarah Klau’s selection because this time last year she wasn’t in our squad, but was added late following the injury cloud over Emily Mannix.”

 

The coaches
Alexander’s two assistant coaches, Marg Caldow and Roselee Jencke, resigned from the national program in recent months. Caldow is reportedly seeking a well-earned retirement after many years with the Diamonds, while Jencke will be focusing on her role with the Firebirds. They’ve played a crucial role in the Diamonds’ success and will be hard to replace.

Alexander said, “That’s going to be another tough decision. There’s a lot of thought being put into it, and we’re gaining insight into different areas. We’ve used the AIS Performance and Leadership Consultant to help us out in this area and determine what is going to be the best coaching team to take us into the World Cup and the next four year cycle beyond that.”

Many of Australia’s best coaches are either involved with current franchises or coaching overseas, which narrows the available pool.

According to Alexander, “It’s almost impossible for the Suncorp Super Netball head coaches to also work in the Diamonds program. However, we’re not missing out on their expertise, as they are like assistant coaches and contribute to our national program in different ways. For example, the number of conversations I’ve had with them in recent weeks about selection, what they’re doing in their programs, how we’re transitioning to Diamonds, all those things go on in the background.”

 

The response to the squad announcement
It’s usually easy to estimate the majority of the Diamond’s squad, but this year has thrown up a few surprises. A few factors could be involved, including a wide-open selection table forced by recent retirements, and even the strength of the Suncorp Super Netball itself.

What’s been touted as the world’s best domestic league is delivering. The increased salary cap is allowing players to commit more fully to their program, and fans are seeing exceptional performances from a wider range of players.

The squad announcement has caused heated debate on social media and Alexander wants to remind fans that selectors are doing the best they can.

“We’re making selections based on what we need in the international game and Suncorp Super Netball only provides us with a certain level of data. There are other factors that can’t be discussed in a public forum and must remain private. We hope that people can understand that.”

“We know fans are passionate and we want them to be excited about the Diamonds. However, we hope that people can respect what the selectors and Netball Australia are doing, and have faith in how we’re doing it.”

 

 

Report: Jenny Sinclair
Photos: Danny Dalton, Simon Leonard.

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