Weak Sunshine series creates hotspots in Silver Ferns

Netball

With the end goal defending next year’s Netball World Cup, what can the Silver Ferns take from the frustrating series against Jamaica? And who’s put a hand up to play Australia? Merryn Anderson reports.

It wasn’t the intense, competitive series the Silver Ferns had wished for, but the two tests against a depleted Jamaica have increased competition inside the Ferns camp as they turn to their next challenge, Australia.

Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua now has a dilemma on her hands, with players who didn’t make the line-up for last month’s Commonwealth Games coming out firing over the last two days. And they’re hungry to retain their place in the team for the Constellation Cup in less than three weeks’ time, and stay there for the Netball World Cup in 10 months’ time.   

Players like Mila Reuelu-Buchanan, who made only her second appearance in the black dress on Wednesday, but earned a full match at wing attack in the second test of the Taini Jamison Trophy series last night. And Elle Temu, who made her debut and showed the start of a potential game-winning partnership with Kelly Jury in the defensive circle. 

The return of captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio was a welcome sight to Ferns fans and to Taurua; picking up where she left off 18 months ago, with all but one of her silky smooth long range shots hitting the target across two tests, and strengthening her links with Maia Wilson and making a new connection with Grace Nweke in the shooting circle.

Obviously, Taurua would have liked more of the vigorous competition they’d got six weeks ago from a Jamaican side who won Commonwealth Games silver – as the Silver Ferns dominated last night’s second test, 75-35, following on from their 70-45 victory the night before. 

Yes, the Ferns could have been more consistent, and been sharper with their finishing touches. But still Taurua was happy with what she got from the longer-than-expected training stint and the two tests, when it looked for a while as though there might not be any. 

It was a good stepping stone, she said, to the Ferns’ four tests against the newly-minted Commonwealth Games champions next month. “We’re ready to take Australia on,” Taurua said. 

“For us to play against Australia, then we’ll really know what we’re made of and that’s exciting. It’s cool to be challenged in that way.”

So often the problem area for the Ferns, the shooters all had a fantastic series – shooting at 91 percent and 96 percent in the two games. In fact, they missed only three attempts at goal last night. Nweke stood out in the first test at goal shoot, but Wilson, who created a more mobile circle, was impressive with her 30 from 31 in the second half last night.

But that was without the immense pressure of Jamaica’s Shamera Sterling, one of the world’s top defenders, who had the Ferns shooters shaken in Birmingham. 

Grace Nweke shot 25 from 26 in two quarters of the Ferns’ 75-35 victory over Jamaica last night. Photo: Getty Images. 

A three-match series would have been the perfect preparation for the Silver Ferns at stage of their journey towards next year’s Netball World Cup, but a string of seemingly never-ending issues for the Jamaicans made for an underwhelming series.

Without their stars like Sterling and Jhaniele Fowler, they arrived here with only seven players, who ended up playing back-to-back full games. By the second half last night, they were run ragged by the Silver Ferns, who made the most of their substitutions.

Taurua said after the first test had New Zealand been in that position, they wouldn’t have competed. “Player welfare is really important, not only for the seven that’s out there. Acknowledging as well the travel, so there’s always a fatigue element that comes into it,” she said. 

World Netball have announced they will undergo a full investigation of the series, and focus on why Jamaica couldn’t field a full team in New Zealand. “Those things need to be asked of Netball Jamaica, in protection of their players, but also I think for World Netball and the product we want to put out on court,” said Taurua. “That we are a legitimate sport and we are professional both on and off court.”

But the series was still a chance for the Ferns to build combinations, especially in the midcourt where they were without the seasoned Shannon Saunders and Gina Crampton. It was also the first time Temu, Reuelu-Buchanan and Maddy Gordon had encountered the unique Caribbean style of play. 

“Irrelevant of the [Jamaican] players out there, they still play that same way and that same flavour,” Taurua said, aware that it took the Ferns a long time to adjust to the Sunshine Girls’ style of play at the Commonwealth Games. 

With the 2023 Netball World Cup played across just 10 days, the Ferns needed to practise backing up their performances with a tight turnaround. 

The good

A definite highlight was seeing Temu make her debut in the first test and play a full 60 minutes at goal defence. The tears streaming down her face during the national anthem were proof of how much the moment meant to the 24-year-old, who finished the game with two intercepts and two gains, while also providing support in the midcourt. 

She continued to build her reputation, getting the start in the second test, and playing another 30 minutes with Jury. 

Ekenasio made a stellar return to international netball after having her second child – and her body stood up well to the pressure, she said. She shot at 100 percent from her seven attempts in the first game, and 16 from 17 over three quarters in the second. 

Her new combination with the young Nweke was strong, and she fell back into rhythm with Wilson. 

“With Grace being such a weapon behind there, and Meels [Ekenasio] being a weapon in regards to her shooting and her volume, it’s still finding its feet. The combination is growing,” coach Taurua said. “Even having the change-ups is really good – with Maia [Wilson] going out there, it provides us with a moving circle and we can get a bit more speed.” 

Maddy Gordon, playing at wing attack in game one, showed she had the confidence to let the ball go to the target of Nweke at the back; a confidence Reulu-Buchanan carried into the second game. 

Reulu-Buchanan finished a full game with the most centre pass receives, feeds and goal assists last night. She’ll be fierce competition for Crampton in the battle for the wing attack bib next year, but she still needs international experience against testing opposition under her belt.

The not-so-good

In the first test, the Ferns had an 11-goal lead at the first quarter break, but couldn’t repeat that margin in the other quarters – only winning the final stanza by four, their momentum slowing as they adjusted to the changes. Some of that could be attributed to the Jamaicans improving, too, finding their connections as the game went on. 

Taurua wasn’t as happy with their start in the second test, with moments of lapses, she said. But she felt they showed signs of hitting their form building on their 36-22 halftime score.

The New Zealanders also lost their first centre pass in every quarter in the first test, which raised an alarm with Taurua, too. But it wasn’t an issue in the second.

With Kate Heffernan a last-minute absence from the series with a toe infection, the Silver Ferns struggled to find the perfect wing defence. Phoenix Karaka slotted in, but didn’t make much of an impact, immediately finding her groove when moved to the in-circle defence. Kayla Johnson was unconvincing in her time there, as Heffernan’s speed and grit on defence was sorely missed. 

“Playing wing d is a whole new position for me…but to be up there has really opened my vision,” said Karaka, who felt she went looking for more ball when she went back to goal defence. 

What lies ahead

The Silver Ferns kick off the Constellation Cup on October 12 in Auckland – the first of two home games, followed by two away games.

New Zealand and Australia didn’t meet at the Commonwealth Games – for the first time in their history. But back in 2021, it was New Zealand who came out victorious for only the second time in the Constellation Cup’s 11-year history. 

There may be a Quad Series in the Northern Hemisphere in January, but with nothing confirmed, this could have been the only time the Kiwis face the Sunshine Girls before the World Cup in Cape Town next July. 

The Ferns will look to have a few experienced heads back for the pinnacle event. 

Jane Watson is raring to return after having her first baby, and Gina Crampton will return from her sabbatical. Karin Burger also won’t let anything stop her from playing a World Cup in her country of birth, after foot surgery ruled her out of the Commonwealth Games. 

Two more of the winning 2019 team are unlikely but possible inclusions – expecting mum Shannon Saunders and second-time mum Katrina Rore, who’s unsigned to any ANZ Premiership teams in 2023.

For the team who pulled off a miracle turnaround to win the 2019 World Cup, it seems like a much easier journey to the top this time.

There’s still a way to go, but for now at least, the Ferns are ready for the Diamonds. 

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