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Diamonds return to the top at Commonwealth Games, their first major tournament victory in seven years

Australia clinched gold at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. (Getty: Sue McKay)

Despite their world number one ranking, the Diamonds had not won a major netball tournament in seven long years heading into the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

After consecutive one-goal losses at the 2018 Gold Coast Games and 2019 World Cup, there were fears Australia may miss out again in Birmingham when they let go of a six-goal lead to lose by two goals against Jamaica in the final match of the group stages.

Jamaica had enormous support at the National Entertainment Centre throughout the 2022 tournament, dancing their way into the hearts of netball fans all around the world to become many people's second favourite team – if they weren't already their first.

Jhaniele Fowler was a dominant force at the Games. (Getty: Morgan Harlow)

On Sunday night, in front of a sold-out crowd of 9,500, the Sunshine Girls again had the majority cheering loudly for them, making so much noise any time they did something special on court that it sounded like the roof was going to lift off.

But by the end of the match, the Australian netball team climbed to the top of the Commonwealth Games podium, having defeated the Jamaicans 55-51 to reclaim their gold medal and status atop the netball world.

Despite the tough environment for the Australians, who were booed multiple times throughout the final, the players remained focused in their quest for gold — by now, they were well and truly used to being the most unpopular team at a tournament, with even the neutrals turning on them.

Their victory over the home team and defending champions England 60-51 in the semi-final didn't help their cause, encouraging Roses fans to jump straight on the Jamaican bandwagon.

Heading into the match, the focus was largely on the tactics Diamonds head coach Stacey Marinkovich would employ, and whether she could tap into the depth she'd developed in the group stages of the tournament to help get the Australians out of trouble should they find themselves on the back foot against a swarming Jamaican defence.

In their previous encounter, Marinkovich had been criticised for her lacklustre game plan that failed to shut down Jamaican powerhouse Jhaniele Fowler — despite knowing her game better than anyone else after four years coaching her at the West Coast Fever in the Super Netball league.

It hadn't all been smooth sailing for Marinkovich. (Getty: Mark Kolbe)

At her first major tournament as Diamonds coach, Marinkovich also came under fire for her reluctance to make changes against some of their tougher opponents.

This was particularly true in that final group match against Jamaica, where the Sunshine Girls had completely dismantled the Australian attack in the fourth quarter.

Hungry for ball, Jamaica had already outscored the Diamonds 13-5 to take a two-goal lead with four minutes left to play by the time Marinkovich had made her decision to bring defender Sarah Klau into the game.

It was the right move, giving Fowler something new to think about with Klau's extra height and her ability to go toe-to-toe with the world's best shooter, but it came far too late to make any sort of impact, allowing the Jamaicans to seal their first victory against the Diamonds at a Commonwealth Games.

There were more milestones to come for the Sunshine Girls, as they hammered New Zealand 67-51 in the semi-finals to make their first gold medal match – surpassing their previous best performances at the Games, when they claimed bronze in 2002, 2014 and 2018.

Marinkovich was forced to go back to the drawing board after the Diamonds' initial loss to Jamaica. (AAP: James Ross)

But Marinkovich ensured their undefeated run ended there, going back to the drawing board and analysing the semi-final within an inch of its life to come up with a better game plan.

This time, although she selected the same starting seven, Marinkovich relied on her gut instinct to make key changes at the perfect moment to win the match.

Early on, the Diamonds were struggling to get the ball to Gretel Bueta in the goal circle and resorted to forcing the feed over the Jamaican defenders' heads.

Shamera Sterling, Latty Wilson and Jodi-Ann Ward had already combined to accumulate 15 pickups, 13 deflections and three intercepts against this style of uninventive play in their previous meeting — high, long feeds play right into their hands.

Still, Bueta and Steph Wood battled hard to share the shooting load and see Australia capitalise on some key wins in defence.

Kate Moloney played well alongside Liz Watson and Ash Brazill in the midcourt. (Getty: Matthew Lewis.)

The work from Kate Moloney and Ash Brazill was immense, holding Jamaica's midcourters high in the goal third and away from circle edge — where, according to statistician Luke Oates, the Sunshine Girls converted 95 per cent of their feeds in their last match against the Diamonds.

Jo Weston and Courtney Bruce did a solid job doubling up on Fowler to slow her scoring rate, putting pressure on Jamaican goal attack Shanice Beckford to contribute more.

It was a tight battle, and these tactics didn't work every time, but it was enough to see the Australians get out to a six-goal lead with just two minutes to go in the opening quarter.

Jamaica forged a minor comeback at this point, scoring 5-1 to make a dint on the scoreboard and head into the first break behind by just two goals, 14-12.

The moment that changed the final

They kept this momentum going to start the second, scoring 7-5 to take the lead for the first time. In response, Marinkovich rung the changes, ordering Klau and Cara Koenen to ready themselves.

Klau and Bruce made the difference at the back. (Getty: Craig Mercer)

After Jamaica converted their next centre pass, the Diamonds injected Klau at keeper, pushing Bruce out to goal defence and benching veteran Jo Weston. Two goals later, they did the same thing up front, bringing Koenen on at shooter and pushing Bueta to goal attack.

This was the exact moment that defined the match, showcasing the depth of the Australian squad and the key lessons they'd learnt from their loss.

The changes were nothing new – as we've seen both these combinations shine before – but it was the timing from Marinkovich that made the difference between gold and silver.

Alongside Koenen, Bueta was able to play the free-flowing style she exudes in her usual position at goal attack. It also helped her get away from Sterling.

Both Koenen (right) and Bueta (left) finished the match with 100 per cent accuracy, going 52/52 between them. (Getty: Matthew Lewis)

Koenen, meanwhile, added more height and her baseline dodges and sweeping movements opened up space inside the circle to turn the defenders' heads.

At the other end of the court, Klau started to apply pressure to Fowler, allowing Bruce to focus on marking Beckford, and suddenly Australia started to win the ball.

Three minutes after the substitutions, the Diamonds were back in front, having scored 6-1 as their opposition struggled to adapt.

Still, the Sunshine Girls continued to fight and at half-time the score was level at 29-29. 

At half-time Beckford had shot 4/4. By the end of the match Bruce had restricted her to just one more goal. (Getty: Alex Livesey)

But after half-time, the Diamonds caught the Jamaican's flat-footed, scoring seven straight goals to secure their biggest lead of the game.

It was Australia's strongest period and put them in a good position on the scoreboard, leading 45-39 with just 15 minutes to play.

But their fans weren't breathing a sigh of relief just yet, knowing that the Diamonds had found themselves in this exact same position against Jamaica earlier on in the Games and somehow still managed to lose.

This time though, the team were more composed, drawing on their previous game-winning experience as a Diamonds team.

Captain Liz Watson leads the celebrations. (Getty: Stephen Pond)

When Jamaica outscored them 6-3 to start the final quarter and bring the score within three, Australia answered back, outscoring them 7-3.

And, although the Sunshine Girls forced a turnover within the last minute-and-a-half to score three unanswered goals, time ran out.

The final whistle went, Australia silenced the crowd and it was the Diamonds back on top of the podium with a gold medal around their necks.

Marinkovich keeps bench players ready

Speaking to the ABC, Klau said it was a blessing in disguise that Australia had lost their first hit-out against Jamaica.

Klau (left) said Sunday Aryang (right) was the secret behind her success, despite not playing a minute of the final. (Getty: Mike Egerton)

"It made us go back to the drawing board and analyse even harder to come up with better tactics," she said.

"We spent a lot of time working out who was their dominant receiver and changed things up to try and shut down those key players."

Klau revealed she had no idea she was going to be injected into the game.

"To be honest, I wasn't expecting the call-up … I was sitting there, when I suddenly got the nod and was told to warm-up quickly," she said.

"When you're on the bench you're so hungry to get on court, so despite it being a surprise, I was ready for that opportunity and was really proud of the combination I formed with Courtney."

Klau also credited young defender Sunday Aryang's insights as one of the reasons she was able to make such an immediate impact off the bench.

"Sunday and I had been talking and she suggested Courtney could hedge a little more in front of Fowler to make the space appear open, so I took on her words of wisdom and had her in my ear while I was on court … She was a massive part of that victory," she said of the 21-year-old who played every match in Birmingham except the semi and the final.

One thing's for sure, it won't be the last time we see Jamaica challenge at a major netball tournament and they're bound to be a dangerous force again at next year's Netball World Cup in Cape Town.

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