23 Oct 2016

Ferns need to turn ifs and buts into something palpable

8:21 am on 23 October 2016

Sports Call: The Silver Ferns' international season has offered some glimpses of hope but it has also been an uncomfortable reminder that arch-rivals Australia continue to assume the role of big sister.

Te Paea Selby-Rickit shoots over Clare McMeniman and Sharni Layton during the Constellation Cup netball match between the New Zealand Silver Ferns and the Australian Diamonds.

Te Paea Selby-Rickit shoots during the Constellation Cup netball match between the Silver Ferns and Australian Diamonds. Photo: PhotoSport

The world number one and two ranked netball sides met five times this year, with the Ferns just winning once.

Last year the record was three games apiece and the Ferns finished with a flourish after beating the World Champion Diamonds on their turf in the final two meetings of the year.

On Thursday, the Ferns failed to level the Constellation Cup, losing 49-45 to Australia in the fourth and final test in Invercargill.

So has this year been a step backwards?

It's difficult to assess because of the changes to the side; the retirement of Leana de Bruin, unavailability of Casey Kopua and Kayla Cullen, and the late return of Maria Tutaia.

The added depth in the shooting circle certainly marks progress.

For the past decade long-bomb queen Maria Tutaia has all but had her name written on the goal attack bib but now she has genuine competition from Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Ameliaranne Ekenasio.

Internal competition is why Australia is so good, and that is what the Silver Ferns need more of.

Issues around the attacking end persist though. Generally it is a lot easier for Australia to get the ball to their shooters, compared to the arduous journey it takes to get into the New Zealand shooting end.

New Zealand's shooting accuracy also needs to improve.

Across the five matches against Australia, New Zealand had an average shooting rate of 81.6 percent compared to Australia's 89.2 percent.

Bailey Mes still lacks consistency in this area but that will hopefully improve when she finally gets to play in her preferred position next year at domestic level when she returns to the Mystics.

Tutaia has never been a 90 percent shooter but maybe we have to live with that given the range she shoots from.

What is really promising is that 19-year-old Maia Wilson is sitting in the wings. Silver Ferns coach Janine Southby probably felt it was too early to throw the rookie into the cauldron just yet but she is an exciting prospect.

Give it another year or two and Wilson could start genuinely putting pressure on Mes for the goal shoot bib.

Her shooting accuracy is excellent, while her stature and basketball background could be the ingredients needed to withstand the menacing presence of Sharni Layton, who has become another thorn in the side of New Zealand.

Depth overall is promising, especially considering the one win we got over the Diamonds this year was without Tutaia and without Laura Langman at Centre.

Langman has been the Ferns first choice centre for nearly a decade and there was a time when the thought of her getting injured would have made a Silver Ferns coach very nervous.

But Southby persisted with the Shannon Francois at centre/Langman wing defence combo and proved it can work.

Now, the Ferns have to learn to live without the staunch midcourter altogether, with Langman's international career on hold after signing in next year's new Australian competition.

This year also saw the emergence of rookies Gina Crampton and Jane Watson - players Southby has been quick to pick up.

While netball is a team sport Australia has shown it doesn't hurt to have some genuine match winners. Players who can really take the game by the scruff of its neck.

Goal Shoot Caitlin Bassett in action for the Australia Diamonds

Goal Shoot Caitlin Bassett continues to be a handful. Photo: Photosport

One of those is Diamonds shooter Caitlin Bassett who regularly scores in excess of 45 goals against New Zealand.

She is causing the kind of headaches to the Ferns that legend Irene van Dyk did to Australia during her reign at the top.

Anna Harrison did just about everything that could have been asked of her to negate her threat and was actually pretty successful but the ball is still coming in too fast.

Former New Zealand captain Casey Kopua returns to Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic next year after taking time out to have a baby but there is no guarantee she will return to the Ferns.

Even if the desire is there, Kopua, who at her pinnacle was one of the best defenders in the world, has been plagued by injury throughout her career and that might be her major obstacle.

Silver Ferns captain Casey Kopua

Former Silver Ferns captain Casey Kopua. Photo: Photosport

If she did return, it would be interesting to see whether she would be used at goal keep or goal defence and who she would be paired with.

There are hopeful signs for the Ferns but there are a lot of ifs and buts.

They need to turn the promise into tangible gains over the next year or two and significant ones at that.

Because just when you think the Silver Ferns have turned a corner and can match it with Australia, that bully of a big sister ramps it up again and shows the Ferns who's boss.

Failing that ...maybe there is hope in reports that the new Australian domestic competition will adopt a two-point shot in 2018, a move Australian coach Lisa Alexander is naturally concerned about.

While it might keep the broadcasters over there happy, the national players could go into the Commonwealth Games and World Cup the following year, having spent very little time playing to the international rules.