After five tests without a W, the Silver Ferns saved face with a strong rebound win over England's Roses. But can they prove it's not an aberration? Merryn Anderson reports.
Let’s just hope it was an uncharacteristic slump.
As the Silver Ferns blasted to a 21-goal win over the England Roses in Porirua last night, bouncing back from a shocking first test loss three days before, they went some way to allaying the fear this was a team in trouble.
Winless in their last five outings (four at the World Cup), the Ferns needed to show some drive and resilience against what is essentially England B, a touring team missing all of their silver medal-winning World Cup players.
It wasn’t exactly perfect. Fired up from the opening whistle, the Ferns again fell into a dangerous second-quarter lull, letting a 13-goal advantage slip to four. But they stormed away with the second half to triumph 57-36.
The Taini Jamison series now comes down to the deciding final test in Hamilton on Saturday. The city where the world rugby champions, the Black Ferns - the Silver Ferns’ closest code competitors for popularity - will play Australia on the same day.
Regardless of the outcome, the Ferns are likely to hold onto their ranking of No.2 in the world - one place ahead of England - despite New Zealand's dismal fourth placing at the recent World Cup. But it's only a fortnight until they meet the world No.1 side, Australia's Diamonds, in the four-test Constellation Cup.
Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua was happier - but still not completely satisfied - with her side’s performance in the second test.
“Our ability to put the foot on the throat and do the simple things well, it sort of eludes us at times - which it did in the second quarter,” she told Sky Sport after the game.
“There’s moments where people have just gotta know they’ve got to do their own job, they’re looking at each other for someone to actually step up but they’ve got to take accountability for themselves.”
That was obvious in the second spell - the same stanza that cost the Ferns heavily in the opening test one-goal loss. This time, though, England trailed by 10 at the first break, winning the second quarter 16-10 and closing the gap to four at halftime. But the Ferns well and truly put the nail in the coffin with a 18-6 final quarter.
So what changed in just three days?
The biggest personnel change was goal shoot Amelia Walmsley, making her Silver Ferns debut. The 19-year-old became Silver Fern #184, shooting 36 from 41.
Kate Heffernan's long bomb finds Amelia Walmsley alone under the Silver Ferns hoop
Her composure was impressive for a player on debut, not backing down from any challenges even after a shaky start, missing her first two attempts on goal, and then being called for a few offensive penalties.
“She took some hammering underneath that post, [but] she was able to stay strong,” Taurua said.
“I thought we could have taken the ball better to her, the delivery could have been better but I thought she was amazing. What a debut.”
Hailing from Auckland, but playing her netball in Wellington for the Central Pulse, Walmsley had her parents and two younger sisters in the crowd and felt great after her first outing in the black dress.
Coach Taurua had simply asked her to stick to the basics - to be available for the ball, and to turn and shoot. At times, the Ferns feeders were a bit hesitant to feed the ball into her, but their connection and confidence grew as the game went on.
“At halftime, we spoke about that, I said ‘Mila Mila, I’m on, I’m on, just give it!’,” Walmsley explained, wanting the ball from wing attack Mila Reuelu-Buchanan. “And Noels said ‘If you think you’re on more, just yell’ and so by the end, I gave Mila a big yell.”
Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio, who was one of the few bright spots in the first test, had another great outing, supporting Walmsley both with volume and accuracy (91 percent) and her presence in the circle.
Finally able to give a winning interview after a match, Ekenasio said she felt “a ton of relief” at the result.
“I was really proud of everybody tonight, it was time for us to show a bit of heart, a bit of mongrel, show what’s really in our bellies,” the experienced goal attack said. “We asked for more from each other, we asked to really dig deep and really grind.”
Surprisingly, Taurua made no changes throughout the whole 60 minutes. Recently criticised for not making changes when things weren’t working, Taurua stuck with her starting seven - and this time it paid off.
There were times when it seemed like a change in the midcourt was needed, as no attackers were driving to the ball, or no pressure was being put on the Roses attackers until the ball was heading into the circle.
However, Taurua trusted her team to learn and adjust as they went, with the Ferns only committing one turnover in the final quarter - a number almost unheard of at the elite level.
She demanded more urgency, intensity, centre pass defence and pressure from her side, and they responded.
The Ferns in-circle defence stepped up for this game, Phoenix Karaka a stand-out at goal defence after a quiet performance in game one.
The MVP, Karaka finished the game with seven gains, two intercepts and four deflections and paired well with goal keep Kelly Jury, the duo committing no turnovers between them all match.
After shooting at 88 percent in the first test, the Roses slipped to a disappointing 68 percent this game - Sasha Glasgow and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis both having uncharacteristically bad days under the hoop; the latter slotting just half of her 14 attempts.
With the 1.93m tall Grace Nweke still ruled out with injury, 1.92m Walmsley was able to continue the Ferns’ game plan of feeding a tall, holding shooter.
“The attack with Amelia in there just gives us a different option, we’ve got a holding shooter which splits the circle automatically,” Taurua explained. “Now our ability to take the ball to the circle edge will really help.”
The final game in the series will determine whether the winless streak was out of the ordinary, or whether it was this victory which was a fluke for the Ferns.
Ekenasio made it clear to her team in the post-match huddle the win wasn’t a reason to become complacent, knowing the unheralded England team would come out firing, with everything to prove, in the decider.
*The Taini Jamison series concludes in Hamilton on Saturday, as the winner takes all. Coverage starts at 6.45pm on Sky Sport 1, or free-to-air on Sky Open.