If the 2023 Quad Series was a trial for the Netball World Cup, it was put to good use. From the teams and their athletes, to organisational matters, there was much that went right, and areas for definite improvement.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The Cape Town Convention Centre is one of the smallest venues to host a Netball World Cup in quite some time, and while stands were half empty during the Quad Series, expect this to change in July. Due to limited space, tickets will become hot property, and packages for international fans appear the way to go.
And while the number of fans in attendance was lower than expected, the exuberance and enthusiasm of those who were there augurs well for a great atmosphere at the World Cup.
There’s work to do on the broadcast, with transmission to countries outside South Africa both patchy and frustrating at times. The multi-national commentators were excellent, providing a balanced view of proceedings, while the locals were particularly impressive. Their depth of knowledge, interesting insights and correct pronunciation of names was all that could be asked for, although at times they all needed to breathe.
The drop in floor had its moments too, with multiple players hitting the deck and an astonishing amount of footwork penalties committed. Whether that was through the physical nature of the matches, a slippery surface, or a combination of both is uncertain, but the floor surface does bear looking at.
It’s hard to justify taking injured players into an event like this and Jo Harten, who’s been battling a knee injury, was finally shipped back to Australia on Sunday, having played just one of the Roses preceding eight games. Harten will have further assessment and potentially surgery, leaving her in doubt for the start of the SSN season.
In an astonishing feat, England’s Jade Clarke became just the second player to reach 200 international caps, and the first person to do it for one country. An outstanding athlete and person, Clarke deserves every accolade she’s receiving. Congratulations also to Phoenix Karaka who played her 50th match for New Zealand.
Fans are still debating “that moment”, when umpires were distracted in the final, didn’t see whether a goal was scored, and finished with a toss up. Questions are being asked why they didn’t approach the third umpire or the bench, but the rule book clearly states “a toss up is taken to restart play when after a stoppage the umpires are unable to determine which player had the ball or the the ball was on the ground when play stopped.” Clearly time for a rule change.
There also needs to be a better system for managing serious infringements, with Karin Burger seeming to get away with several warnings and a caution in the final, rather than being sent to the sin bin for two minutes.
BY THE NUMBERS
Statistics for the 2023 Quad Series were fascinating compared to last year’s Commonwealth Games. In a nutshell:
- While New Zealand had issues picking up gains last year, they led the way in the Quad Series thanks to the return of several stars. Meanwhile, Australia dropped to third and England fourth. The dominant presence of Grace Nweke and a clear pathway into her was largely responsible for Australia’s issues against their old foes (just 14 gains across two matches), and will lead to some soul searching for the team.
- Australia committed just 61 turnovers, including an incredible 12 in the final. Ball security by both the Diamonds and the Silver Ferns was formidably low, while England and South Africa have work to do.
- New Zealand were the most penalised nation, with the midcourt needing to tidy up their act to stay in play.
- Shooting percentage averages didn’t climb out of the 80s, a sign of both the pressure applied, and a clear work on for coaches.
|Key Team Stats||Australia||England||New Zealand||South Africa|
HOW TEAMS PERFORMED
Coach Stacey Marinkovich used her match time wisely – seeing how some players could run out 60 minutes, getting much needed court time into less experienced players, and testing a variety of combinations. All of which threw up some positives – particularly the ability to claw back a deficit, and ball security – but some much needed work-ons as well. Slow starting games and shooting accuracy are both areas to address.
While the established shooting circle partnership was firing, play became messier when other combinations were used. However, Cara Koenen was impressively agile under the post and strong in the air, while vice-captain Steph Wood pleasingly showed that she’s still capable of running out 60 minutes. Sophie Garbin continues to improve, although will rue a few missed shots under the post, while Sophie Dwyer and Kiera Austin both pushed their claims for the World Cup.
Liz Watson was dominant at wing attack and combined well with Paige Hadley at centre. Their final outing was perhaps their best joint venture to date, with the pair giving away just 1 turnover between them, and combining for 73 feeds – Watson on a particularly impressive 46 for the game. Some of the other combinations need further work, but despite this, Australia averaged just 15 turnovers per match, an impressively low number given the changes. Kate Moloney was also busy at centre, and probably has the edge on Jamie-Lee Price at this stage given her lower error rate.
Through court defence was one of the Diamonds’ greatest strengths, slowing the ball, keeping opponents accountable, while Ash Brazill was particularly important in the final, coming up with four critical midcourt gains that swung the tide of the match.
Whilst her penalty count was still on the high side, Courtney Bruce led the way in the defensive circle, finishing with defensive player of the tournament. Bruce was also strong but economical in attack, while Sarah Klau never lost focus for a minute despite a formidable task in the final.
Tara Hinchliffe made a notable debut in the third round, and during her 30 minutes came up with four gains.
It was a disappointing tournament for the Roses, who were beaten by Australia and New Zealand, eked out a draw against an underdone South Africa in pool play and finished with bronze. Defensively England were formidable for much of the tournament, although finished with the least number of gains, but their attacking midcourt struggled to find a clear path to goal.
All shooters posted some impressive numbers, with Eleanor Cardwell a rock under the post and Helen Housby again finding some good form. Liv Tchine was used sparingly, but the young shooter wasn’t fazed by the close attention she received in the Proteas match, and looks to have a bright future ahead of her.
Other than the ever-reliable Jade Clarke, the Roses midcourters were disappointingly inconsistent. After committing 27 turnovers in the first match, that number reduced across the tournament, but Nat Metcalf and Imogen Allison in particular will rue some of their basic errors.
Still in search of a replacement for Serena Guthrie, the experiment to turn wing defender Laura Malcolm – who received just 20 minutes of court time all series – into a wing attack/centre hasn’t been as successful as hoped. With limited time remaining for the World Cup, other combinations are still looking underdone just six months out.
Allison had flashes of brilliance, but given her turnover rate, needs more time out on court to cement her decision making. And while Metcalf remains their first choice wing attack, neither Chelsea Pitman nor Elle McDonald did enough to convince selectors they are suitable replacements when the captain needs a breather.
England’s through court defence was strong, holding up teams as they transitioned through court, and making numerous critical stops. The back three combination of Geva Mentor, Funmi Fadoju and Layla Gusgoth put plenty of pressure on their opponents, although it would be interesting to see how the team fared should the latter two switch at times. Fadoju would still have ball hunting space, but Gusgoth’s experience and connection with Mentor could make a vital difference against some of their wilier opponents.
Mentor was vital at the back, while Fadoju’s impressive ball hunting abilities shone all tournament.
There’s a lot to like about New Zealand, and they should continue to build on this performance ahead of the World Cup. They trialed a range of players and combinations, eased a few stars back into action, and still kept their turnover rate impressively low. After a lot of work over recent years, the Silver Ferns now have a large group of players pressing for national selection, and some difficult choices lie ahead for selectors.
Coach Dame Noeline Taurua continues to pour court time into Grace Nweke, and the young shooter is now close to unstoppable under the post as she picked up both shooter and player of the series. Ameliaranne Ekenasio reminded fans why she’s one of the best goal shooters in the business, calmly directing play and working her way smoothly into the circle, but at times needed to up her work rate to take the heat off the double-defended Nweke. While their court time was limited, Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Maia Wilson should have also booked their seats on the plane.
Gina Crampton has returned refreshed from her break, and should hold her place as New Zealand’s first choice wing attack despite some patches of brilliance from Peta Toeava. Crampton was strong on the drive, and rarely put a foot wrong with her feeds. Kate Heffernen was outstanding at both centre and wing defence, winning midcourter of the tournament. Her ability to pick off a stray ball was outstanding, her additional height and reach make her a challenge defensively, and she’s taken to feeding the circle smoothly
However, both she and Karin Burger have some work to do in tidying up their body control as both midcourters were heavily penalised. Standing out of play releases pressure on the Silver Ferns’ opponents, and is something they will look to rectify before the World Cup.
And how good was the defensive end? A back four of Heffernen, Karin Burger, Phoenix Karaka and any of the three goal keepers, is a formidable one that was able to slow play and force errors. New Zealand have a wealth of defensive stocks, with each player making a valuable contribution to their team.
On paper, goal defence Karaka had the most number of gains, but Kelly Jury’s reach, Jane Watson’s instincts, and Sulu Fitzpatricks’ positioning, all make them difficult to overlook. Jury’s introduction in the fourth quarter of the final slowed the Australian’s scoring rate, leaving fans wondering if it should have come earlier.
What a difference six months, a re-instated coach and the return of several experienced players makes. The Proteas were brimming with energy and national pride as they pushed England to a draw, and capped a number of fresh faces against the might of Australia and New Zealand. While coach Norma Plummer would be disappointed at a couple of the margins, and letting a lead slip to England during pool play, there was also plenty to like.
Lenize Potgeiter and Ine-Mari Venter returned from injury well, providing a strong presence and good accuracy under the post. However, it was young goal attack Nichole Taljaard who stole the show in the shooting circle. Her strong attacking moves, low error rate and willingness to go to the post, against world class oppositions, was impressive. She isn’t quite up to a 60 minute performance against the best in the business, but the amount of court time she received will stand her in good stead ahead of the World Cup.
The centre court are still searching for their best combinations, and after a subpar performance against the Silver Ferns, they clicked into gear against England. Bongiwe Msomi was a menace at centre in that game, while Khanyisa Chawane provided punch at wing attack, although it’s a less than usual position for her. In the third round Izette Griesel pulled in five intercepts at wing attack and led all-comers for feeds, in an MVP worthy performance.
However, the Proteas’ midcourt will rue some costly errors in the final, as their midcourt looked rushed at times. Players need to gain their balance rather than step on, and while there’s a time and a place for the quick ball, there’s also a time to be deliberate, as 93 turnovers across the tournament (average 23 per game) would suggest.
Karla Pretorius didn’t disappoint in her return from maternity leave, and in the second match, with Phumza Maweni banished from court for two minutes, somehow came up with the ball during a two-on-one situation in the circle. It was a match winning save, allowing the Proteas to play England to a draw. Maweni was also rock solid, and one of the highest ball winners of the tournament.
The challenge for coach Norma Plummer at the Netball World Cup will be how she manages her squad. While she has more depth at her disposal than previously, she also has a number of inexperienced players, who go well against some of the lesser ranked nations but aren’t quite ready for the challenge of those ranked above the Proteas.
Plummer will be desperately hoping that some of her injured players are fit to return, and how she balances her squad and keeps legs fresh for the big matches will be vital.