After a raft of retirements, the Australian Netball Diamonds are opting for stability over experimentation for their upcoming Quad Series and Constellation Cup campaigns. Following a bittersweet 2018 Commonwealth Games, Laura Geitz, Madi Robinson and Susan Pettitt announced their retirement from the team, while assistant coaches Rosalie Jencke and Marg Caldow also opted out of the program. The five had served their country with distinction over many years, taking with them a wealth of experience.
The response from national coach Lisa Alexander and Netball Australia was decisive. Alexander was given a one year contract extension to take her into 2020, two new specialist coaches and two new training partners were appointed, while the playing group remained relatively unchanged, with just one new cap breaking into the team.
Alexander said, “Apart from the loss to England, our players performed extremely well at the Commonwealth Games and I think making wholesale changes was unnecessary. We needed to have a show of faith in our players.”
Kelsey Browne, Emily Mannix and Gretel Tippett were selected to cover the retirements, with the latter two already familiar with the Diamonds’ environment. Browne wasn’t part of the initial squad but bolted into the team after her quality proved too irresistible to ignore. She impressed across the season, and in her final three games clearly had the better of national squad members Gabi Simpson, Jamie-Lee Price and Jess Anstiss, a feat which caught the eye of the selectors.
Alexander said, “We could not ignore her form, her improvement and the ability to back up week in, week out. Kelsey hasn’t missed a beat since coming into the Diamonds’ environment. Seeing her at training vindicated that decision, she fitted straight in. I said to her that it’s like she’s been here ten years.”
“Kelsey has worked incredibly hard in all aspects of her training and game, and provides real variability to the type of wing attack we already have. We are amazed at her speed and how dynamic she is. The other thing she brings is her combination with (existing players) Steph Wood and Caitlin Bassett. Their connectedness is superb.”
In addition to the squad of 18 players, Kiera Austin and Kim Jenner were announced as training partners for the Diamonds. Jenner earned her place after a standout defensive season with the Queensland Firebirds, with Austin the only surprise. After a strong World Youth Cup campaign last year, she spent most of 2018 sitting on the bench at the Giants. However, the 185cm youngster’s versatility and composure was impressive in her brief playing appearances, and key to her call up.
Austin’s cameo in the Giants’ semi-final was impossible to overlook, according to Alexander. “She is very consistent and brings class and skill to the goal attack position. You don’t grow that on trees. Kiera is different to the goal attacks/wing attacks we’ve got at the moment, with their shorter, sharper movements. She knows that she has a lot of learning to do, but we want to keep an eye on her for the future.”
Also new to the Diamonds are specialist coaches Megan Anderson and Clare McMeniman who will respectively take on shooting and defensive responsibilities. Former elite netballers, the duo were selected after a thorough process that considered a range of factors.
Alexander explained, “We took the decision to go down the specialist coaching path, because I see my assistant coaches as being the Suncorp Super Netball head coaches.”
“But we wanted a hard look at specialist information from coaches who’ve had recent playing careers. Clare (McMeniman) is very new, she knows she’s not perfect, but we’re working closely in collaboration. Their ability is not only as coaches but as communicators.”
It is of vital importance for Alexander to provide contemporary information to the athletes, something she believes the two younger coaches are positioned to provide. She said, “It’s less of a ‘telling’ environment, and more of a creative and encouraging environment where the players take ownership of how they learn. As coaches, we facilitate that. We have to understand the game plan and communicate it clearly, but we also have to make sure the athletes are across everything. That they understand their role within the systems we operate in.”
One of Alexander’s greatest strengths is as a mentor, a role she will continue in with other coaches as well as her athletes. For her, it’s a two-way street, where she’s learned as much from her former assistants and franchise head coaches as they have from her. She said, “I feel like it’s a natural part of what I’m doing. I’m learning a lot from Clare and Megan and offering advice to them too. We review at every session, making sure that we do everything we can to encourage the Diamonds to flourish.”
Alexander works closely with the Suncorp Super Netball head coaches and sees them as her assistant coaches when it comes to the Diamonds program. “I think we get the best out of our system if we enable our head coaches to do their daily work, while assisting us with the development of our existing squad, and the level underneath who are pushing their way in. We all work together in the system, and they’re very supportive around that.”
While Alexander has worked closely with Sunshine Coast Lightning’s head coach Noeline Taurua in the past, that role will take a back seat now that Taurua is in charge of New Zealand’s Silver Ferns. Future communication around national athletes such as Steph Wood will go through Lightning’s assistant coach, Kylee Byrnes. Alexander said, “The national program and Lightning have worked closely together in the past and we don’t want that to change because it benefits all the Australian athletes at that franchise. We will be smart about handling our processes of communication, and Noeline and I are both comfortable with that.”
While Alexander respected outgoing Silver Ferns’ coach Janine Southby, she believes that Taurua will be a great asset for their national program. Alexander said, “Noeline is very open and engaging, has high standards and communicates well. Watching her going about her business I was extremely impressed. While it’s not necessarily something she’s coveted, because she’s very humble, I think she will be great for New Zealand netball. You can just see how much the Lightning athletes have grown under her care, and she will bring that to the Silver Ferns as well.”
Alexander was recently granted a one year contract extension by Netball Australia, that will take her past the upcoming Netball World Cup and into 2020. It’s a professional way to manage transition, according to Alexander. “If you’re going to conclude a contract at the end of a bench mark event it puts pressure on everybody; the athletes, the coaches and the system as a whole. To do well in high performance sport you need stability, so the board getting this organised early so that we all understand what is happening is a good decision.”
“We’re continuing to grow our team and squad into the future, not just finish at a pinnacle event. I’ve got a responsibility to hand over to the next Diamonds’ coach a squad that’s in a really good place.”
In place since 2011, Alexander has enjoyed a remarkable run of success and the contract extension will make her the longest consecutively serving Diamonds’ coach. She explained, “This isn’t an easy job and results can go in different ways, so we will need to discuss that. I’m delighted that the board have shown faith in my ability to lead the program at this stage, and I’m prepared to keep going if both of us decide that’s what in the Diamonds’ best interests.
Report: Jenny Sinclair
Photos: May Bailey