It would be an understatement to say that Australia and New Zealand have a history of epic Netball World Cup battles. The 2019 gold medal match is the seventh time that these countries have contested this particular match. Of those seven encounters, Australia has claimed six titles. Each match has been decided by four or less goals, with three of the matches coming down to a single goal. Well; four now.
Given these stats, it is understandable that both teams got off nervous starts in today’s gold medal match. Every Australian player on the court was guilty of at least one turnover during the first term. Of the New Zealand squad, turnovers came from both shooters with Maria Folau giving up the most (3).
Today’s match was Folau’s 146thtest cap for New Zealand, seeing her surpass the great Irene van Dyk. Folau now sits behind Laura Langman as the second most capped New Zealand netball player.
Australia drew first blood of the match thanks to the nervous shooting of Folau. Two uncharacteristic misses were rebounded by Bruce and launched through transition. But Australia was guilty of not treasuring these gains and squandered the opportunities given to them by the defence.
Australian captain, Caitlin Bassett gave away three offensive contacts in the first term. Casey Kopua and Jane Watson did a superb job of getting inside the feeder’s heads, and effectively forcing Bassett to muscle up to lobs or force her way to front position.
By comparison, when the ball was won by New Zealand their transition was blistering. Gina Crampton was like an assassin finding the holes in Australia’s defence. Australian wing defence, Jamie-Lee Price, was all too often left in chase mode, unable to keep up with Crampton.
Speaking after the game, Crampton said her attacking end learnt a lot from their last encounter with Australia in the preliminary rounds. “I think today we didn’t play into their hands as much as we did in the pool matches. I think it was good that we could open up their defence. I think we felt constricted in that first game. We had a look at ourselves and the way that the circle linked with us middies and changed it. I am just so happy that it worked.”
New Zealand’s zone defence forced the Australians to reset play over the transverse line on several occasions.
In the end, it was the New Zealand grit that saw them claw back a four-goal deficit to bring the score level going into the first break.
Australian wing attack, Kelsey Browne, who was caught behind Katrina Rore too much during the first time, came out for the second term firing. She found the space to drive up the middle of the goal third, opening up space for Aussie centre, Liz Watson, to swing the ball wide, across the circle and into the pockets for easier feeding.
But, Rore and Langman caught onto this move quite quickly and soon began to block Browne’s easy access to the circle edge.
Jo Weston who was effective in defence, but guilt of turnovers, during the first term, went missing during the second term. She gave Ameliaranne Ekenasio too much space, allowing the New Zealand goal attack to take seven centre pass receives, one rebound and give four goal assists for the second term. This was in addition to her 7/7 goal scoring for the period.
Ekenasio’s combination with Folau during the second term was also troubling for the Diamonds. Folau had control of the base line and found her range, shooting 11 from 13. The interplay between the two nullified Courtney Bruce who was left scrambling and seemed to be more concerned with keeping herself in play than contesting.
Diamond’s coach, Lisa Alexander, noted the extra space given to Folau as one of the reasons for bringing on youngster Sarah Klau at three quarter time. “Clearly we weren’t having much effect on Maria in that second quarter and we wanted to shut that down and we felt Sarah would do that for us.”
Another change made at half-time was the introduction of Gretel Tippett at goal attack for Australia. Lisa said that Tippett was introduced to bring height and firepower. The firepower was needed because Steph Wood was being beaten for height and speed by, player of the match, Casey Kopua.
Wood was caught in the wings or was blocked out of the circle by Langman and Kopua. When she was able to access the circle, rather than take the strong drives in to post, she skipped through the circle and opted to lob the ball to Bassett then put up the long bombs that she is more than capable of potting.
Tippett and Klau were not the only changes made at three quarter time, with Jamie-Lee Price benched and April Brandley introduced at wing defence. Brandley was effective in wing-defence – for an out of position goal defence. She provided the extra height and finesse that Australia needed to stop New Zealand’s punchy attack line.
Once Klau calmed her nerves she began to body up on Folau. Umpire Gary Burgess was onto the excessive contacts giving the defender two cautions in the one term.
Alexander’s message to Klau at three quarter time was to get off the body a bit more. “But there were no major changes to her game though. I think she was pretty clean overall.”
The changes came a little late for Australia because in the time it took them to settle New Zealand ran away with the third quarter.
Australia found their grit in the final term and pegged back three goals.
Klau’s positioning on the rebound improved and she won back the ball after Ekensasio outrebounded her in the first few minutes of the term. The determination on Klau’s face said she was not going to let it happen again.
Veteran, Kopua was onto Tippett’s high feeds and began contesting them in the air. However, Tippett’s superior aerial positioning, often sent Kopua to the ground, with a penalty.
Despite Australia winning the period, it was not enough to get them the win. It is New Zealand’s first World Cup gold medal in 16 years.
Noeline Taurua’s charges have nothing but praise for the coach who turned their team around. Speaking after the match, Kopua credits her coach with giving her the fairy tale ending to her career. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. And, she knows how to bring 12 players together and ger the best out of them and find out what you got and what you are going to bring no matter what and that is something that I have never seen another coach do.”
Alexander’s messages to her team after the game was to hold their heads up. “We are terribly proud of them. We have done everything to the maximum from a high-performance point of view. You couldn’t get athletes who are more professional. I am really, really proud of them.”
That said, Alexander still wants her squad to remember the pain of the loss. “We want to make sure that the team acknowledging that they are hurting and to remember that. Because that is what drives athletes to higher performance and training. This group, pretty much in the main, will go forward into the next cycle.”
Rumours have been swirling about the possible retirements from both squads. However, all that has been confirmed is that it was Kopua’s last game of netball, both domestically and internationally. As for Laura Langman, also she said was, “I am logging off.” Read into that what you will.