After their World Cup crash, the Silver Ferns have rolled the world champions - twice - to finish 2023. But is the coach happy with that progress? Merryn Anderson reports.
Asked to sum up the Silver Ferns’ year, Dame Noeline Taurua channeled Forrest Gump.
“Life is like a box of chocolates,” the celebrated coach laughed, after the Ferns pulled off their second victory over the netball world champions, Australia, in four days.
And just like in Gump’s famous quote, you were never quite sure which Ferns side you were gonna get in 2023.
From the New Zealand team who slumped to fourth at the Netball World Cup in August, to the side who overcame the world No.1 Diamonds, 53-50, in front of a deafening crowd in Auckland’s Spark Arena yesterday. Although the Ferns’ rousing comeback tied up the series 2-2, it wasn’t enough to claim the Constellation Cup from Australia.
“It’s a mixed bag I suppose,” Taurua said of their year. “I think coming out of Netball World Cup knowing that we were fourth, through the traditions of the Silver Ferns, that’s never a good feeling.
“But through that time, we still maintained our second ranking - I’ll be interested to see how close we are now to Australia - so that’s massive for us to finish on these last two games on a high. It just sets us up nicely for next year.”
At the end of a season that saw the Silver Ferns draw with South Africa and lose to England and Jamaica, and Taurua’s fifth year in charge, she’s not completely happy with where the side sits.
“I feel we could be better right now, if I’m going to be honest,” she says. Soft turnovers and throwing away hard-fought defence ball are two areas where the Ferns can make more improvements.
“I understand why we are like that, but I would like it to be better because I feel we are a better team than what we’re currently producing. Which probably, when you look at it, is quite scary for the opposition.”
But the more experience this developing generation of Silver Ferns can get under pressure, the stronger they’ll be at the 2026 Commonwealth Games and 2027 World Cup.
It was always going to be a hard ask, beating the netball world champions by 16 or more goals, in game four of the Constellation Cup.
But even with the silverware staying in Australia again, thanks to goal difference, it was still a performance of which the Ferns could be proud.
The Diamonds led from the outset, by as many as six at one point, until the Ferns finally took the lead for the first time with half a quarter left.
A four-goal run was enough for the Ferns to level the series, the fourth time the Constellation Cup has finished in a tie. All tied series have been won by Australia, due to the simple fact they scored more goals.
Both Taurua and Australian head coach Stacey Marinkovich agreed they’d like to see a five-match series to have an outright winner, but Taurua admits the Diamonds won this year fair and square.
It was the Diamonds’ 11th Constellation Cup win, the Ferns just winning it twice - in 2012 and 2021. Only four of the Ferns who won the Cup two years ago featured on court in their two victories over Australia this year.
The Diamonds had convincingly won the first two matches of the series, and held a 19-goal advantage after their home games.
In front of a loyal Invercargill crowd at the temporarily re-named Robyn Broughton Stadium, the Ferns pegged one back on Thursday, winning 56-53 to leave it all up to the decider.
So how did they bounce back? An obvious answer would be the return of goal shoot Grace Nweke. She missed the first game of the series, and was on limited minutes for the second and third, still coming back from a knee injury suffered at the World Cup.
With the 1.93m shooter holding space in the circle, the Ferns feeders grew more confident to go for long feeds, or throw the ball over the arms of the Aussie defenders when Nweke was on court.
At just 19 years old, fellow goal shoot Amelia Walmsley also has a bright future ahead of her. Used when Nweke was rested, Walmsley shot 46 from 54 across three games - just her second series in the black dress and first against the physical challenge of the Diamonds.
As the series went on, Taurua was quick to make changes when things weren’t working - unlike at the World Cup. And the changes were seamless, with Whitney Souness making a difference in the midcourt and goal attack Tiana Metuarau providing a calm head and slowing play down when the Ferns were rushing in attack.
The Ferns defence continued their strength, with options galore. Karin Burger, Phoenix Karaka, Jane Watson and Kelly Jury have proved capable of playing with any combination, and threatening opposing shooters.
In yesterday’s test, Taurua stuck with Burger and Jury in the goal circle for the full 60 minutes - a decision that paid dividends.
As Taurua noted, despite finishing fourth at the World Cup, the Ferns retained their second-place world ranking - which came as a shock to many.
NZ drew with South Africa (#6), and lost to Jamaica (#4) and England (#3). So these two wins against the Aussies will do a lot to help the Kiwis hold their place in the world.
Even with the Ferns losing to lower-ranked teams, Marinkovich says the trans-Tasman rivalry is still one of her favourite battles.
“There’s definitely an intensity around it, we’re just so different with the way that we play and that’s what makes it so challenging,” she says.
“There’s so much history and passion…I think that’s what makes it so special when you’re in each other’s space.”
Taurua agrees, and says the rivalry is a pinnacle event for the team, behind the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup.
“It’s so beautiful, and you can’t get any better,” she says. “The traditions and the history that go between the two countries, but I think also the respect as well, it’s the best. Love it.”
Burger - awarded MVP in her 50th match for the Ferns - was happy to play at home, after big, vocal crowds across the ditch.
“Invercargill was really loud which was amazing, I think it really helped us as that eighth player,” she says.
“Auckland really delivered for us and especially in those crucial moments, it helped us. It pumps up the adrenaline a lot more, and it helps us with that 50/50 ball sometimes as well.
“Sometimes we can acknowledge that we do need to slow it down and calm it down at times as well, but that will come with experience. But, really grateful to the New Zealand crowd for backing us.”
The Silver Ferns now turn their focus to a Quad Series in January in England, with opponents yet to be confirmed - but likely to be England, Australia and either South Africa or Jamaica.
It’s a series Taurua is eager to win, especially if it’s her last in charge - her extended contract coming to an end after the series.
“There’s a lot of positive stuff we can glean out of these games,” she says. “So we’ll be looking at that and seeing what we can do in these next couple of weeks to get ourselves ready.”
But they’re on the right track, she believes.
“It takes time to build those connections and those relationships, not only on-court but also off-court,” Taurua explains.
“I feel all the work that’s been done by the players, we’re just starting to see all the fruits of the labour. But there’s a lot to go, for us to be world champions like the Diamonds.
“They set the benchmark and it’s nice to know that we’re getting closer.”
In the earlier game, the Net Blacks (New Zealand’s men’s netball team) lost their final game against the Australian men. After losing their first match by 35, the Net Blacks stepped up and went down by 14 goals in the final two tests.