Silver Ferns: Writing on the wall for a long time

10:21 am on 17 April 2018

By Matt Richens *

Opinion - An awkwardly asked question might have been the news story of the Silver Ferns Commonwealth Games tournament, but it was just another distraction from the real issues.

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Photo: AFP

Few who know sport - actually, make that none who know sport - would think the Silver Ferns didn't have passion for their black dress or were trying anything less than their best as Katrina Grant's answer proved. Maybe that was the interviewer's plan the whole time.

Moving on. The issue, simply put, is that the side wasn't good enough.

Player for player they were not the best, second best or third best team at that tournament and, for a number of reasons, they were unable to make up for that ability shortfall with superb teamwork, or sensational individualism as some sporting teams are.

The problem with failing at the Commonwealth Games is the audience is magnified.

Netball followers have seen this decline happening. Retirements of key players, one of the world's best unavailable, a weakened local competition, and not enough potential stars coming through, have all hinted this could be a tough time for the Silver Ferns.

The Games, however, brings in a whole other crowd. The 'sometimes' fan gets caught up in the hype around an event like this and it's those fans who still expect gold.

They still remember fondly the double overtime win over Australia in Delhi and an upset boilover in enemy territory four years earlier.

But it's eight years since New Zealand beat Australia at a Commonwealth Games netball tournament.

Expecting a gold on the Gold Coast was naive. Expecting a medal was hopeful.

New Zealand were a mental hurdle for England and Jamaica for so many years, but that issue was well and truly gone before the Games' opening ceremony.

It was hope more than anything else when people - including coach Janine Southby - thought a gold medal was a chance.

In her defence, what she meant to say was: "We probably won't win one, but if it all clicks we can still compete?"

The Silver Ferns might have been ranked second in the world, but that's a hangover of teams of the past.

This team really is the fourth best in the world and, on current form, that could be a spot they make home for some time.

For the part-time netball fan whose interest piques at the Commonwealth Games and World Champs, this result will be shocking. For those fans, a medal-less return is the equivalent of the All Blacks' 2007 World Cup quarterfinal exit.

In reality, the writing has been on the wall for a while.

The side were poor in the Taini Jamison Trophy, the pre-amble to netball's sixth Commonwealth Games appearance and haven't been consistently competitive with Australia for years.

So what are the issues?

Retirements. Of the team that won the gold in Delhi, six players and a coach who have strong cases to make a Netball New Zealand Hall of Fame have retired.

Now, those things happen but a strong organisation ensures the next level of top level talent is coming through and is pushed and challenged at a young age to get better. There aren't enough examples of that happening of late.

Where are teenagers belting the door down demanding selection on form, like Casey Kopua and Laura Langman did?

Langman being unavailable does weaken the team, but her availability wouldn't have boosted the side from fourth to first.

On one hand, Netball New Zealand did the right thing with Langman. Had they opened the doors for players to play in Australia, others would have gone, their home product wouldn't have been as good and Sky wouldn't have paid as much for the rights. The All Blacks protect their "brand" by doing the same thing, but one does wonder whether or not they could have been a bit more flexible with Langman.

Possibly a dispensation where a player could apply for a one-year sojourn and still be available, offered only to long-serving Silver Ferns. They could have put a limit of one per year in place and still retained their competition's strength and a key player.

The biggest issue, in my opinion, was the splitting of the competitions.

Former Australian rep and Netball Australia board member Kath Harby-Williams reportedly said Netball New Zealand were offered three teams in a stronger trans-Tasman competition.

The offer made sense considering New Zealand's monopoly on the competition's wooden spoon.

Netball New Zealand would have been criticised for pandering to the Aussies, but at least that way 36 players would have been playing a higher level of netball.

While it's easy to point fingers at Southby, those further up the food chain should cop at least some of the blame.

The New Zealand competition is interesting, filled with generally close games and packaged well, but the truth is it is a decent step down from its Australian counterpart, leaving a bigger gap to close at international level.

A medal-less return might be just what this side and the sport in New Zealand needs; a shaky silver or a blessed bronze might have stopped serious questions being asked.

There will be a review and maybe we'll find out Southby had lost the dressing room or something similar. But if that review looks just at what went wrong at this tournament and not the national team at a greater depth, it will be as far off the mark, as so many of the Silver Ferns' passes were.

* Matt Richens started writing sport 15 years ago, covered the trans-Tasman netball competiton and the Silver Ferns for a number of years. He doesn't like thundersticks. You can find him on Twitter at @mattrichens