On Monday the 27th of May, Lisa Alexander and Angie Bain, the Diamonds’ Wellbeing Manager, picked up the phone. It was the start of a marathon, letting the entire national squad know if they were in or out of the 2019 Netball World Cup team. They’d break the news quickly – Lisa says the players don’t like “fluff” – and share a conversation.

Lisa explained, “We tried to make sure our communication was clear, and that our messages were consistent. We also needed to ensure whether the athletes were okay, and whether they wanted more support. It’s particularly tough on the athletes who haven’t been selected, and Angie might need to follow them up.”

A 48 hour pause followed, to allow for appeals, before the team was publicly announced. This year, unfortunately, a leak occurred. A respected netball journalist shared selection news in an article published the following day.

It was, to Lisa, disappointing. She said, “I know it’s difficult in club land for confidentiality to be maintained. But it would have been courtesy from that journalist to give our athletes a couple of days to get their heads around it. Their welfare is always at the front of our minds.”

“But at the end of the day, journalists have their work to do, and if they think they’re onto something, they’ll put it out there. I guess it shows how big our game is now.”

“No one likes having to wait 48 hours (for the announcement) but that’s the process at the moment. It might be something that the board looks at for next time.”

Before the calls are made, none of the players “expect” to be chosen. Lisa said, “In the back of their mind they always wonder if they’ll be selected, because none of them take that privilege for granted. Even CBass (Caitlin Bassett, captain), who certainly out of everyone would be most confident, needs to hear the ‘yes’.”

Reactions are mixed. Kelsey Browne, Lisa said, was particularly emotional. “She was very grateful for the opportunity. She wasn’t sure whether she’d make it, because her form, like Collingwood’s, has been a little bit up and down. But the selectors can still see the great bones of her game in different aspects, and that adds to the team’s point of difference.”

“I also loved Paige’s reaction. She’s been out of the team for a while, and we both reflected on the call four years ago when I told her she was in the 2015 World Cup team. That was completely out of the blue for her.”

Lisa’s toughest two calls were to Kim Ravaillion and Gabi Simpson, both casualties of other midcourters’ red hot form. Ravaillion has been a stalwart of the Diamonds since her debut in 2013, while Simpson is one of the best players who hasn’t yet made it to a Netball World Cup.

The national coach reflected, “Both athletes have been part of my world for pretty well the eight years I’ve been in this job. They were juniors in my early days; I think the first tournament I watched as national coach was when Kim Ravaillion won 19 and Under player of the tournament. It’s been very tough for them, but it’s a reflection of the great position Australian netball is in.”

 

Lisa Alexander in a reflective mood. Photo: Danny Dalton.

Selection of the World Cup team has been a work in progress for over a year, since Australia won silver at the Commonwealth Games. While a fantastic result in many ways, it wasn’t what the Diamonds had hoped for or worked towards. Lisa said, “We’ve had 12 months of learning and that’s what we’ve been putting into practice. Making sure we’re performance ready has been our main focus. Everybody has worked on their individual performance plans so they’re physically and psychologically ready to perform.”

“I’ve seen that in matches this year. Players are taking to the court with more resolve around what they’re doing. We have to be more prepared and ready to play a role at any given time, and I think that’s a very positive step forwards.”

Across the 12 months, Lisa and her fellow selectors have worked towards a plan. They’ve challenged and pushed each other, needing to pick a team that can take on the world’s best, and beat them. Lisa said, “The beauty of netball is it’s a team game. While a player’s statistics are very important, they also need to be part of combinations that can work together, and work in the style that we want the Diamonds to play. It’s a very particular set of circumstances and isn’t always reflected in the Nissan Net Points that players receive.”

It’s perhaps a theory why Ash Brazill, who’s been in terrific domestically in the last two years, can’t force her way into the team. The Diamonds’ defensive game plan includes keeping a player between the opposition wing attack and their shooting circle, providing hands-over pressure and limiting their ability to reach prime feeding position on the edge of the circle. While intercepts are spectacular when they come off, they can leave wing defences overrunning their opponent and an unimpeded pass to the circle.

The selectors have chosen what they consider to be a versatile squad. It needed to allow for injury cover – most players have to cover at least one, if not two, positions. Different nations play different styles; Australia must have the ability to play against holding shooters, moving shooters, teams who retain possession at all costs, the New Zealand zone defence, and a range of other tactical differences.

Lisa explained, “I could pick out what I think is the top seven players at this stage, but it might not be at the end of the tournament, and it certainly won’t be for each opponent we come up against. Having that unpredictability will make other nations think twice as to how they counteract us.”

While Lisa’s mathematical brain enjoys the almost chess-like approach to modern day netball, she’s always mindful of her athletes as people. She said, “We never forget that. They have to be mentally as well as physically in the best shape to compete. So looking after them, and making sure they’re rested, recovered, and ready to go the next day is very important.”

It’s a reflection of netball’s popularity in Australia that opinions around selection are flying thick and fast. In Lisa’s opinion the selectors have chosen a team that are fit, in form and versatile. She said, “Clare McMeniman (specialist coach) said to me the other day, ‘It’s one of the hardest teams in the world to get into!’”

“She’s right, when you look at the numbers that play, the depth in our squad, the quality of the competition. It’s an impossible task to keep everybody happy. This is a strong team. With a few little tweaks we’ll be even better. We’ve got some great international competition and that’s something we have to be more mindful of than ever before.”

 

The Australian Diamonds took home silver from the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Photo: Simon Leonard.

 

The shooting circle: Caitlin Bassett, Caitlin Thwaites, Gretel Tippett, Stephanie Wood

The shooting circle is the Diamonds’ most stable area on court, with all four players retaining their places from the most recent Quad Series and Constellation Cup, and the retirement of Susan Pettitt the only change from the 2018 Commonwealth Games team. The addition of Tippett will add a significant amount of firepower to the Diamonds’ circle. She’s added maturity to her already imposing presence in the circle, while her height, athleticism and defensive capabilities make her a tough opponent to match up on.

Lisa Alexander comments:

“This wasn’t an easy selection, particularly omitting Tegan Phillip. She’s had a really good start to the season, shooting well, carrying a heavy workload.”

Caitlin Bassett

“She still has some room for improvement after a fractured forearm kept her off court for some time. We’re happy with her progress, she’s not where she would want to be right now, but the selectors are happy with that as we think she is building. We’re really pleased she’s strengthening her arms and hands, and adding tools to her kit bag in terms of her movement. While the combination within the Giants with Jo Harten is still a work in progress, it’s helping CBass to creatively add to her game, as well as Jo’s game, and that will be good for both of them.”

Caitlin Thwaites

“We can’t go past that she’s a more dynamic, moving type of shooter than CBass. She plays shooter a bit like a goal attack at times, with how giving she is to her partner in the circle. We also love that she can own the circle and be the key shooter. She provides variety in that she’s able to bring lots of different game styles. Her strength, the way she pulls that ball in, she’s very accurate and a great team member as well.”

“Caitlin can go out to goal attack now. She’s been practising it in training, and we’ve seen it in a match, so she’s really lifted her physical training and that’s adding to her game. It gives us more variety.”

Gretel Tippett

“She’s been extraordinary this year. She’s really grown into the role that she’s playing at the Firebirds and is becoming more of a leader in their attack end. Having confidence in being a leader, recognising that she does play differently to some goal attacks, but that’s okay. Having confidence in her ability to run the show. We’ve got some great supporting acts around her to help her do that, or at different times she can make others look good.”

“Gretel’s really improved her skill – the way she passes, the way she decision-makes has all come together this year. Plus her defensive capability is second to none, and we’d like a little bit more of that. Hopefully in our team structures she’ll really be able to add in that area and get us some turnover ball.”

Steph Wood

“There’ve been a couple of games this season that we saw the Steph of a few years ago, the ability to put light and shade in her games, be the playmaker, or do the shooting herself. Getting that balance right, the hard work that goes with it, all in one package. I think that’s what she’s done extremely well in a couple of matches.”

 

Gretel Tippett – hard to stop in the air. Photo: Aliesha Vicars

 

The midcourt: Kelsey Browne, Liz Watson, Paige Hadley, Jamie-Lee Price

The midcourt has seen the greatest amount of change with only Watson retained from the Commonwealth Games team, and Hadley from the last World Cup team. Just how Lisa Alexander combines the verve of Browne, the rock-solid Watson, the cool head of Hadley and Price’s controlled aggression, will be fascinating. All four players can swing across a minimum of two positions, providing flexibility enough to suit a range of situations and opponents. Browne will link up with former Lightning teammates Caitlin Bassett and Steph Wood, a proven and match-winning connection.

Lisa Alexander comments:

Liz Watson and Kelsey Browne

“It’s fair to say that Kelsey has the speed to cut through the lines, and we’ve also seen that combination of Kelsey at wing attack and Liz at centre do extremely well against our opponents, even though it hasn’t had a lot of time to build. That combination has had some good hit outs in the test match arena and we think it will continue to grow.”

“Although, Liz has been playing extremely well at wing attack which gives us thoughts about starting her there, and putting Paige or Jamie-Lee into centre. It gives us options for different centre court set ups that are going to hopefully disrupt our opposition.”

Paige Hadley

“She’s been a bit like Gretel and a few others. Maturing, feeling confident in themselves as people, just playing their game, and allowing it to come out without too much thought. Not overthinking it, not getting down on themselves, which is a classic Australian netballer mental approach at times. I think what Paige has done really well is relax and trust all the work she’s done up until this point over the years in her skill.”

“She’s always been a great attacker and defender. We saw her defending extremely well at wing defence at camp. She’s got the ability to play all three positions at top level. Her centre game this year with Maddy Proud at wing attack – and Maddi has had a really good season too – her combination has been fantastic, she’s got back a lot of ball, she’s been very tidy with her feeding. She takes the drives on in the attack end, and we know she can play wing attack well. She’s got all the facets of her game working well at the moment.”

“It’s not that we are saying it’s the only reason she’s in there, but the fact that she’s probably the best Australian centre in the league at the moment, comparable with Laura Langman, says something.”

Jamie-Lee Price

“We’re really happy with Jamie’s form. We’ve chosen her primarily for the wing defence position. We haven’t seen her in there much in the Suncorp competition, but we’ve certainly seen her in there in our environment and at camp. We believe she can get ball and shut down, she has that great physical presence and her attacking play is excellent. The fact she is playing centre at the highest level and delivering ball to the CBass’s and the Hartens she’s learning how to play centre more with every match. So all of those elements added to up to a tick for Jamie-Lee.”

 

Liz Watson and Laura Langman battle for the ball. Photo: Simon Leonard

 

 

The defensive circle: Courtney Bruce, Sarah Klau, Jo Weston, April Brandley

There’s been just one change made to the defensive end, with Courtney Bruce, Jo Weston and April Brandley retaining their places in the team. Following the retirement of Laura Geitz after the Commonwealth Games, Emily Mannix received the nod in subsequent test series. However, the 2019 form of Sarah Klau proved to be impossible for the selectors to overlook, and she will receive her maiden test caps at the expense of Mannix.

This year Klau has been one of the most mobile goal keepers in the Suncorp Super Netball league, making her a great match up on the increasingly agile shooters in the game today. She’s showing an impressive ability to create turnovers for her team, pull in rebounds and add pressure over the shot, often statistically outperforming the oppositions’ goal keeper, goal defence and wing defence combined. Courtney Bruce relishes added pressure, whether it’s as West Coast Fever captain or first choice goal keeper. In her return to court against the Magpies recently she pulled in four intercepts, seven deflections, for a total of eight gains.

Lisa Alexander comments:

Sarah Klau

“She’s added great strength and presence to her game. We’re really seeing that competitor come out. There’s also composure with it. Plus her work over the shot we think is one of the best in the league, she’s getting into the shooters’ heads. We like her ability to change from playing a real post up shooter like the Caribbean style goaler, to the more moving shooters. She’s also added real strength and grunt to her game. She’s always been very fit, very focused on doing all the right things, and is attacking the ball with great vigour and skill. I think she’s an extremely skilful player. She’s worked hard on that.”

“The other advantage with Sarah is that she has a goal defence game and an engine for doing that, and we saw a little bit of that in our squad camp, and that’s exciting to be able to put her into that position.”

Courtney Bruce

“I wasn’t concerned that she wouldn’t be ready, other than it would make us feel safer in our selection for her to be out on court before we had to choose the final team. We could have still picked her subject to medical clearance, but it wouldn’t have been as solid for everybody. We’ve had close contact with West Coast Fever’s medical staff, and I’ve been chatting regularly with Stacey (Marinkovich) so I’m really happy with her progress and what she’s been doing in the background to get herself right. I wasn’t surprised she had such a great game.”

Jo Weston and April Brandley

“We’re really pleased with the younger players coming through. Kim Jenner, Tara Hinchliffe, Matilda Garrett. That’s a great next crop of defenders, and hopefully one day Teigan O’Shannassy will be getting court time as well. Those defenders will really step up in the next couple of years and hopefully push for those positions.”

“However, April and Jo did enough to show us they’ve improved their game. April’s enjoyed having Geva at her back to get that combination going and she’s getting more ball herself. She’s got some really good composure in her attacking game. She can swing across to wing defence which we’ve seen before in tests, and we’ll probably use that to our advantage.”

 

Te Paea Selby-Rickit (New Zealand) and Courtney Bruce (Australia). Photo: Aliesha Vicars.

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