After a lengthy Covid enforced pause, the Origin Diamonds resumed the court earlier this month. It heralded the start of the next era for Australian netball, with a new coaching group and squad building towards the 2022 Commonwealth Games and 2023 Netball World Cup.
Fans witnessed an enthralling series against the Silver Ferns, who won the Constellation Cup three games to one. Australian coach Stacey Marinkovich spoke exclusively to Netball Scoop about her thoughts on the tour.
The adversities the Diamonds faced leading into the Constellation Cup are well known. 491 days without international netball, the two incumbent goal attacks – Gretel Bueta and Steph Wood – were absent due to maternity leave and injury respectively, not being able to use time-outs available under Suncorp Super Netball rules, a limited build up, seven new squad members, a recently appointed coaching and high performance staff, and quarantine in New Zealand.
A number of training camps had been planned for the Diamonds and Development squads over the past few months, but given border closures it was impossible to get everyone together.
Marinkovich said, “Bringing the group together has been challenging and was forever changing with the various COVID outbreaks. The week before we left, we were finally able to lock in our departure point for New Zealand and in doing so we were able to bring the group together for the first time to focus on performance on the court. So we flew into Sydney on the Friday, had two days together to get some court work and loading into the girls, and flew to New Zealand on Monday.
“So we effectively started our Constellation Cup tour with just two days of performance beforehand, although there was plenty of preparation behind the scenes.”
The size of the travelling squad
In normal circumstances, a squad of 12-14 would have been taken. Given Covid, allowances had to be made for the possibility of injured or ill athletes, as replacements couldn’t be flown in.
According to Marinkovich, “Taking 14 would have meant that only two squad athletes, of those that were available, would have been left behind in Australia. At the time when we had to choose who was going to travel, we hadn’t seen the athletes in action. We would have been selecting them from paper.
“So we spoke to the squad about the opportunity of taking everyone, we also spoke to the SSN clubs and the whole group was in support of that, even if some of them weren’t going to be named on match day.
“We then added two of our development squad, because their camp was in question and we need to keep building the depth across our defence and shooting circle.”
Under Covid protocols, the Diamonds were required to quarantine for two weeks on arrival in Christchurch. Marinkovich said, “It was a very sharp, professional operation. It ensured we were clean, whilst also protecting the NZ community.
“On arrival we had several Covid tests, and for the first three days we couldn’t leave our rooms at all. Meals were dropped off in brown paper bags, we would put on our mask, pick the meal up off the floor, and go back inside.”
During complete isolation, each of the players had an exercise bike in their room and some equipment supplied by New Zealand. Their routine included group bike sessions, and strength sessions using resistance bands and their own body weight, all done via Zoom.”
Once the Covid tests returned as negative, the travelling squad was allowed outside for ‘fresh air time’. Marinkovich said, “We were split into two groups, and while remaining well separated, were allowed to walk up and down in an area about 10 metres by 20 metres. There was no vigorous exercise or ball work, and after about 45 minutes we returned to our rooms.”
The next progression was to a gym set up in a carpark marquee, with smaller groups allowed in to do weights, and some stationary ball work.
Marinkovich said, “On day seven we had access to a court. Our group was split in two, travelled on separate buses, went through sanitising procedures, trained as a squad, then went back to our rooms.”
“We were allowed to have a couple of team meetings, but interaction was generally limited to Zoom calls. For example, we weren’t able to have a team meal together until the night before the first match.
“We came out of quarantine the day before the first test match. Our bags were packed and had been taken, we were sitting on our beds looking at the doorway and waiting for the knock to say we could leave.
“That left us one day to train together under normal circumstances before the first test. The athletes were incredible in the way in which they took it on, adapted and adjusted.”
The two assistant coaches are Michelle den Dekker and Sharelle McMahon, both former Australian captains. Den Dekker – a defensive specialist – had previously worked in the role under former head coach, Lisa Alexander, and was able to travel with the squad. Given Covid restrictions and a young family, McMahon – the shooting coach – stayed in Victoria. However, Marinkovich said the McMahon’s input was ‘phenomenal’.
“Her level of interaction with the group was second to none, and every training session was filmed and distributed to selectors and Sharelle. She got everything that we saw in the moment.
“She would go through all of that, we would debrief after the game, she was part of the discussion when we talked about selection of the 12 going forward, she had individual communication with the shooting groups and gave feedback. I was working with her with the shooting circle, what the challenges were, and what we were trying to evolve in that group.
“We would have loved to have her there right from the beginning, but it was the second best option, and her contribution via Zoom and phone calls was enormous.”
With the recently appointed coaching staff, nine new squad members, and limited interaction since 2019, it was important for the Diamonds to make sure they had the best possible leadership structure in place.
Marinkovich said, “We take the leadership of the Diamonds very seriously. It is a position that comes with great responsibility and pride. When the Captain of the Diamonds is appointed, we wanted to be sure that they are known and supported by the whole group and that we as organisation are able to provide them with the right support for them to thrive in that position.
“We knew we wouldn’t have enough time to do that. A number of the players hadn’t worked together before, and the coaching group hadn’t worked with some of the players – there are a number of players I had not worked with and I think it is important that a captain and coach lead together.
“Caitlin (Bassett) and Kiera (Austin) were unable to be at the first camp in Noosa (2019), our early 2020 training camps couldn’t go ahead, and we have athletes like Gretel (Bueta), Emily (Mannix) and Steph (Wood) who weren’t at our departure camp in Sydney and will come into the mix.
“So it was agreed by myself, Netball Australia and the national selectors that we would appoint the captaincy on a game by game basis across the Constellation Cup.”
Before the wider squad and the public were informed of the decision, Marinkovich spoke to the most recent leadership group of Bassett, Gabi Simpson and Watson.
“Prior to going down this path, I spoke to each of them – it was important to have that conversation first. I explained what we were wanting to do and the reasons why. Caitlin takes great pride in being the captain of Australia, but she understood what we were doing. Liz and Gabi were also supportive of the idea to enable the entire group to grow in leadership.”
Although not appointing a permanent captain before the Constellation Cup caused some controversy, Marinkovich stands by the decision that was made.
“We wanted the entire group to establish what the leadership qualities were, what we valued the most, and everyone wanted the opportunity to see where those strengths came from in different people. If there were gaps in the leadership skill sets, we wanted to ensure that as an organisation we were going to be in a position to support and grow the players and team.
“It was important for all the group to have a voice, and everyone to take some accountability. We are a new group and we needed the buy in by all. In New Zealand all the athletes showed their individual leadership qualities.”
Netball Australia plays a role in the appointing the Diamonds’ captain, and that will be the next step for Marinkovich. “I have to debrief Netball Australia on my return, as the appointment process is very thorough, and they are a part of it.
“We will then communicate with the players, and discuss the process going forward. We are hoping to continue this process and have our leadership in place come the next Diamonds commitment.”
The Diamonds’ coaching staff and selectors put a plan together to manage the many challenges they were facing.
First was the acceptance that by choosing to travel with the whole squad, rather than 12-14 players, that not everyone would be part of the match day team.
Marinkovich said, “We did make sure that everyone had game time. Some of the athletes had two practice matches against the Tactix, so they were exposed to the international game.
“The Tactix had a number of very experienced players, and their team included Silver Ferns’ squad members Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Kimiora Poi. So while those matches weren’t televised, the selectors and coaches were able to see those performances.”
The next issue the coaching staff faced was the lack of training time together – just two days in Sydney, modified court training (reduced loading, no umpires) within MIQ restrictions in New Zealand, and a shortage of international experience across sectors of the court.
“The athletes had a very short period of time to influence selection, and because of the number of new squad members and limited time together, we had to focus on the combinations that were forming quickly whilst also bringing variation and a point of difference to match up against the Silver Ferns”.
“We had athletes who had never played for Australia, let alone with each other. And for some of those players – Kiera (Austin) for example has had just one season playing at goal attack at SSN level, Cara (Koenen) has only recently established herself as the first choice goal shooter for Lightning, and Sophie Garbin who is still evolving her game.
“There is much that goes into selecting our line ups. You want to reward players for what you have seen in training, and you need to ensure that you have the right balance of experience when blooding new players. As an example, the grand final, midcourt combination of both Liz and Kate (Moloney) provided great support to a debutant shooting circle.”
While Marinkovich was publicly criticised for not rotating her players more during a match, particularly compared to New Zealand, she said there were two strong reasons behind that policy.
“Firstly, we had to form combinations, let alone try and rotate those combinations midway through a game. With limited training, we hadn’t had a chance to trained for a rolling substitution. So for me to get our girls rolling off the bench, without some basic understanding of each other – I don’t think this first four hours our team was going up against NZ was the time to experiment with that.
“Using the injury time out as a rolling sub has not been done in Australia to the extent that it was allowed in NZ, we have a rolling sub rule in SSN for that. It is something we are looking at as part of our review and gaining further clarity from the INF in regards to its implementation going forward.”
“Secondly, we had talked about what the foundation of our game plan was going to look like. We then had to transfer it on to court, into an intensely pressured situation.
“We knew that playing four quarters at that sustained intensity under a new game plan was a really, really big ask, but that’s what we needed to see. What point did the foundation of our game plan get us to, how long could we sustain it, what worked and what didn’t, and what layers can we later add to it?
“It was more important to persist with that, rather than trialling a hundred different things in a short space of time. That wouldn’t have given us the answers we were looking for.
“I kept breaking it down to that. It was four hours of netball that this group had together, and we were playing a group that has had more court time, played international games, and are the world champions.
“So while there were lots of things that we could have put out there, we had to be realistic about where we were at that point of time. Our good was very good, and we certainly were able to challenge and find success against the Silver Ferns.
“We know we still have more to find out, and we know that there is much more to come. I along with the players are committed to our vision and we will leave no stone left unturned to get there.”
“The Diamonds squad is highly competitive with more players to come back into the environment. We have some great depth and I know that the Diamonds’ squad will push each other to ensure that the 12 that represent us at any given time will be ready to perform”.
Rules of the game
Three New Zealand based umpires, one of whom is Australian – were used, and performed consistently well across the series.
Prior to test matches, umpires generally attend match play during training sessions, to help coaches and athletes understand any rule changes and adjust to differing interpretations. Under Covid regulations, the Diamonds were unable to have the umpires in training, and so their opportunity to learn was limited.
It was also the first time that the Diamonds had played under rule changes implemented by the International Netball Federation (INF) in 2020.
“The short pass rule is now a completely different interpretation (it used to be that a person had to fit between the passer’s and receiver’s hands, now it’s only a hand width). In the first test our players hadn’t experienced that, while the Silver Ferns were able to let that ball go as they’d previously experienced it in test matches. But our athletes adjusted as they got exposure to different umpires and environments.
“The Silver Ferns also used the injury time out as rolling subs, and we interpret that quite differently in Australia. So we will need to discuss that with the INF, and if that is how the rule can be used from now on, we will rework our strategies around that.”
What pleased Marinkovich the most about the playing group
Along with the way they handled Covid related restrictions, Marinkovich was excited by the growth she saw in the squad.
“To transfer our game plan onto court – we could see the brand of netball being played, the sharpness of movement, the speed of the ball and our contest on the ball in defence.
“In the first test we were a bit timid. You can talk about the offline defence, the intensity and the atmosphere, but until you actually step into it, it’s all words.
“Once the girls got a whiff of this, they started to relax and play, and we really saw that in test two. The final match – to play in front of an away crowd, with the series on the line, and to be right in it for most of the game, it showed that the girls are resilient, they are embracing what they are doing, and there’s lot’s more to come.
“We didn’t run out the games across four quarters, but it showed us the capability of what we can do. When we add the layers, work more on our combinations, we will definitely have the ability to put out a more complete performance.
“Given the circumstances I think the group did a really good job, and we’ve walked away with a lot of information that we can build on coming up to the big marquee events.”
What did Marinkovich learn about herself during the series.
For a variety of reasons, incoming Australian coaches have had mixed results at the start of their tenure. In their first ten matches against the Silver Ferns, Norma Plummer had a 2-8 winning record, while Lisa Alexander had a 5-5 record, and then went on to win 11 of their next 12 meetings.
Marinkovich currently sits at a 1-3 record, with plenty of growth to come.
She said, “The most important thing I learned is to stay the course. To make sure I have a clear understanding of how to measure what we are doing, with the processes and systems that we have in place. To address everything we need to for the whole group to move forward.
“I believe that whilst it was disappointing not to get the wins, we did walk away some good outcomes from the plan we had in place. So it is vital not to get distracted with the overall result, but to remain focussed on the areas of improvement and solidify the areas that were bringing us success.”
What’s next for the Diamonds?
The squad won’t come together until after the SSN, but will stay in regular contact with the coach and each other in the interim. Each player will receive feedback and areas for them to work on.
“We are working on what that feedback will be, and will work with the player and the SSN clubs to put plans in place that enable the player to remain focussed on their clubs game plan and environment whilst also evolving their skills required for the Diamonds game plan. While I have interaction with the SSN coaches, it will be good for the three of us – myself, the athlete and their SSN coach – to talk as a group so that the messages are aligned and there is a greater understanding of the athlete’s challenge points, and how we can manage that whilst they and I are in difference SSN environments.
“Each club has a different game plan, and different expectations of their players, but working with the clubs has been fantastic. They really supported their athletes in coming away with the Diamonds, particularly knowing that it could be a complicated transition coming home again through border restrictions.”
The final word
The Diamonds won one match by 9 goals, and lost three by a narrow 5, 6 and 2 goal margins. While there were many factors that impacted the Diamonds’ results, there was a lot to like, including the exposure of a new shooting circle to international play, a towering defensive line which will only strengthen with time, a steady midcourt, and players still to come into the mix.
Liz Watson demonstrated strong on court leadership across three of the matches, suggesting that she is the front runner for the Diamonds captaincy.
Particularly pleasing was the form of both Kiera Austin and Cara Koenen. There is enormous physical and mental pressure for shooters against the Silver Ferns – not only do they have to work in attack and defence, rotate around each other in the circle, and put the ball through the ring, they have to thread their way through an offline defence, something which neither of these players have had previous international exposure to.
It’s rare that even former Australian greats of the game have had to run out four quarters in the shooting circle as a new cap, but this was required of both Austin and Koenen. If they’d been taken from the court during the match for a breather, they wouldn’t have truly understood the intensity required to play sixty minutes at this level.
The Silver Ferns showed why they are world champions with their ability to play across four quarters, under the tutelage of the brilliant Noeline Taurua. They are in formidable form, and currently set the bench mark for international netball. However, given that they were playing all matches on home soil, and played two international series in 2020, they definitely held the advantage.
Each section of the court was impressive, with Maia Wilson’s emergence onto the international scene a standout. Their main area of concern will be developing depth in the shooting circle beyond the existing combination of Wilson and captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio.
While the Diamonds would have liked to hold onto the Constellation Cup they were well aware of their purpose for the series.
Marinkovich said, “The emphasis was on us – building our game plan and giving combinations time to evolve. We couldn’t get too bogged down in what New Zealand was doing, while we were still trying to establish our own connections. Next time, we’ve got more experience, the data, the footage, games on home soil, and we will have refined our focus.
“But you have to understand yourself, before you can focus on someone else.”