11 Apr 2020

The epic final that brought netball to a wider audience

8:51 pm on 11 April 2020

The noise is one of the things former Silver Fern Sandra Edge remembers most about the 1991 Netball World Championship grand final in Sydney.

Her team-mate Joan Hodson remembers the physicality of the Australian players - in fact it's what spurred her on to become an international umpire.

The 1991 Silver Ferns team that contested the World Championships in Sydney.

The 1991 Silver Ferns team that contested the World Championships in Sydney. Photo: Netball New Zealand

Jane Hunt, who covered the tournament for NZPA, remembers Silver Fern captain Wai Taumaunu, winning the night with her after-match speech.

I too remember snippets of Taumaunu's speech. I was in my early teens, bitterly disappointed for the Ferns to have lost by 1, having led by a single goal after each quarter. Australia won 53-52.

Taumaunu was stoic and humble when she addressed the crowd. She prefaced her final comment with "without wanting to sound corny". It's a cliché now but when she ended with "netball was the winner" it was the first time I could remember hearing that sentiment.

And she was on the money.

A sell out 10,050 crowd witnessed the final between New Zealand and Australia at the Sydney Entertainment Centre - well over double what the Silver Ferns had ever played in front of before.

"The noise was incredible ...and you are just a little bit fatigued and to have to handle that noise and the intensity and the closeness and all of that, jeepers, it was one to remember for sure," Edge said.

Former Silver Fern Joan Hodson was playing wing attack.

"I think that was my role when I got on court was just yelling and trying to, you know, just keep that connection with everybody and I just remember I was shouting at you know, freakin nobody really because it was so loud," Hodson said.

Hunt remembers being on the side line.

"Just the size of the crowd, and the noise and the hype. And I think those sort of games - the bounce of the ball, umpires call, missed goal - it just was kind of anyone's game. You thought the Silver Ferns had it and then Australia would get the ball back," Hunt said.

The rivalry between Australia and New Zealand was already strong but 1991 took it to the next level.

It would go down as one of the sport's greatest games and netball reached a broader audience that day.

Sandra Edge is one of the greats of New Zealand netball.

Sandra Edge is one of the greats of New Zealand netball. Photo: ©PHOTOSPORT 2006

It wasn't just that it was so close. The TV coverage was far greater than any other World Cup and that was a real game changer.

The event (then named the World Netball Championships) marked the first time it had been televised live in Australia. The more extensive media coverage meant far greater promotion to the general public.

The tournament was played indoors for the first time and there were TV replays. It was beamed into New Zealand during prime time viewing.

Hunt believes the 90s were by far the halcyon days when it came to media coverage and said the 1991 World Champs were made available to so many people.

"It was still free to air television so it would have been on TVNZ. And from memory you would have had newspaper wise - the Christchurch Press, Dominion, New Zealand Herald, NZPA, then radio. So there was kind of wall to wall coverage across all mediums. They say that netball in New Zealand went into maturity when it went into the 60s and 7-aside. But I think the early 90s and that World Champs took it another level higher."

Edge said the final was probably the most physical game she had encountered.

"It was probably a good tactic really, you know, to wear us down ...it was very one on one, every time you took the ball you had a smack over the head, that's what it felt like."

The physicality was possibly an eye opener too for men watching for the first time, who had previously dismissed the sport as 'girly'.

Hodson remembers piggybacking Australian wing defence Simone McKinnis the whole game.

"I just couldn't get over how physical they were, and were allowed to get away with it. I think that's what took me into the whole umpiring circle, you know, because I just felt that they were just on us the whole time."

Hodson went on to become an international umpire for seven years and umpired at World Cups and Commonwealth Games.

The Australian side featured three of the greats from that era - Vicki Wilson, Rosalee Jenke, and McKinnis - who some are tipping as the next coach of the Australian Diamonds.

Twenty four years on from that final, Taumaunu coached the Silver Ferns at the 2015 Netball World Cup in the same city.

Edge stepped down as assistant Pulse coach last year but is still involved with the defending champions as a specialist coach.

The Silver Ferns became World Champs in Glasgow in 1987 when the event was still a round robin affair.

With 1991 being the first time the finals format was introduced, it was easier to build more hype into it and it's hard to imagine now a World Cup where the players and fans don't get the crescendo of a final.

Australia were at home and it couldn't get any more intense.

Waimarama Taumaunu celebrates with the tophy after the international netball match between the Silver Ferns and Jamaica, 1990.

Waimarama Taumaunu in 1990. The New Zealand captain won plenty of accolades for her speech after the 1991 World Championship final. Photo: Photosport

It was a gruelling couple of weeks - the final was their 11th game of the tournament.

Hodson remembers it was really nerve wracking when it got down to the wire.

Edge said she never felt like they were really firing through the game.

"I felt it was sort of status quo and we couldn't quite get ahead and definitely those critical moments didn't go our way ...we knew that we were in a massive match."

The then Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was in the crowd. He'd later go on to say that it was the most exciting sporting contest he'd ever seen.

In a post match interview Silver Ferns' coach Lyn Parker said her team perhaps lacked a bit of experience in the dying moments.

There's one post match interview Hunt remembers well.

"I have a vivid memory of Louisa Wall, who was at that time a very young player and now as most would know, a member of parliament. But she was absolutely distraught because I think in the latter stages of the game, she threw a pass that got intercepted. I think she thought that you know, it was all her fault and I said to her 'these things happen in sport and you'll get another go'. But she was more worried, she said, 'but Wai won't' so she was really affected by it."

It was the final swansong for Taumaunu - who after 10 years in the national side was retiring.

Hunt, who is now media manager for the Central Pulse zone, said her speech was talked about for years to come.

"It was and probably still stands as one of the most humble and heartfelt after match speeches that you'll ever hear and it was just brilliant ...just the way she spoke, the New Zealanders won lots of accolades for that little act."

There was still devastation at being on the losing end and Hodson remembers the mood in the dressing room well.

"I had borrowed a stereo off my sister so straight after the game I had to go and take it back to her and then I went back to the changing rooms and oh my gosh, it was like, you know someone had died.

"It was such a hard fought match and it was so close and the adrenaline was still pumping but there were odd little bits of clusters in the room when I got back and yeah ...it was pretty quiet. It was deathly really but yeah it was a fantastic game to be part of, I was just buzzing from that really."

Joan Hodgson in action during the netball match between the Silver Ferns and Trinidad and Tobago, 1992.

Joan Hodson in action during the netball match between the Silver Ferns and Trinidad and Tobago, 1992. Photo: Photosport

Edge said her recollection was really positive even though they came runners up.

"Everyone appreciated it and I think Wai's address at the end, I think the respect that the team got, you know, through her and how she articulated how she felt and the game. I think people were pretty proud overall, but still devastating, it still didn't change anything," she laughs.

In some ways 1991 was more important for Australian netball because as Hodson recalls the Silver Ferns were already very popular and enjoyed good TV coverage at home, which was the envy of their trans-Tasman counterparts.

The fact that it helped gained traction in Australia has helped feed the rivalry which has been so gripping for the sporting public on both sides of the Tasman.

It definitely set a trend - unbelievably there were even more painful ways the Silver Ferns would lose a World Cup final to Australia.

In 1999, New Zealand lost to their arch-rivals in the final in Christchurch by one goal, having led by 6 going into the final quarter.

In 2011, they lost to Australia in extra time by one goal at the World Cup in Singapore.

But New Zealand finally got one back at last year's Netball World Cup in Liverpool, when they beat the Diamonds by 1 to win the cup after a 16 year drought.