Despite being rampant favourites to win, Australia didn’t have a free pass to beat Malawi, previously the Queens having experience across the court. Having only won by 11 against Malawi at the 2011 Singapore World Cup and not faced them in 2015 in Sydney, the Diamonds had to be well-prepared for the world number nine, even if they were without the injured 2015 player of the tournament, Mwai Kumwenda. Australia’s first half was absolutely crushing, leading by 36 goals into half time, but with changes to both sides for different reasons the second half looked like a different match. Australia were given quite a few areas to modify before their major clashes in the next five days.
After nine minutes with Australia leading 10-2 some patterns were becoming clear – Liz Watson had more goal assists than the rest of her team combined, continuing her cosmically good vision and pass placement of the last two years; the Australian team had double the number of contact penalties, showing mainly that the Malawians were rarely keeping pace in defence to get near infringing; and thirdly, the Diamonds were never being forced to shoot long, scoring at 100% for the whole term, and leading 21-2.
New players for Malawi for the second quarter were Jane Chimaliro at goal attack and Grace Mwafulira at wing defence – the latter went on to record the most intercepts for her team. Australia committed a few more errors in the term, notably an uncharacteristic overdone feed and an offside by Watson. Loreen Ngwira was getting better with her timing getting to the high ball, and both unfortunately and comically cleaning up Takondwa Lwazi who had come on as an injury replacement at centre. Chimaliro was more decisive in the front line, and the space on the ground was used better to evade the tall Diamonds’ reach. Half way through the second it was 31-4 to the Australians.
Having initially nailed three shots for the quarter, the Queens missed the next four. Malawi were also suffering from too many simple errors such as breaking calls, with 24 turnovers to 8 by the reigning World Cupholders. The Diamonds had 57% of possession but a vastly better scoring rate, showing just how quickly they accessed the goal circle and also how the Queens could easily take 20 passes to get from defensive to attacking goal thirds. Australian captain Caitlin Bassett also missed four goals, but it didn’t dent the scoring flow, her side ahead 41-5 at half time.
The third quarter saw a new Aussie line, Thwaites, Wood, Browne, Watson, Price, Klau, and Bruce, while Malawi changed just their goal shooter, Sintowe rejoining the match. This would provide a very zippy, short attack end for the Queens, which would have even more effect against the very tall Klau at goal defence, and they already had three goals in four minutes. There were no settling in issues for Thwaites and Wood hitting all 20 attempts for the quarter, but there were still a few mistakes for the Diamonds, and a good circle-edge intercept by Mwafulira, giving Malawi more opportunities. Kelsey Browne found herself in the pocket either too far, creating risk, or simply too soon and therefore unused. After 8 minutes the quarter score was merely 9-6 to Australia.
Shortly after, Ngirwa went off injured and 83-test cap goal keeper Towera Vinkhumba replaced her. Mwafulira continued good pressure, taking an intercept in the midcourt. The crowd were definitely getting behind the Africans, who increased both their access to shooters and accuracy, with nine of ten for the third quarter. The score was 61-14 heading into the final 15 minutes.
Malawi kept improving into the last quarter, only behind 6-7 after seven minutes. The shorter Queens defenders were good at leaning hard on Caitlin Thwaites and the Australian shooter didn’t always keep control of her hold. Vinkhumbo also got tiny deflections that resulted in possession to her team. The trouble for Australia wasn’t so much a raft of additional turnovers on their behalf, but that the Malawians had greatly reduced theirs.
With Watson off court, Browne took over as main feeder, but the overall attacking timing and space were off, and Hadley had zero goal assists for the first 11 minutes. The message from this final quarter might be less about falling off in effort, rather, the experiment with this particular Australian combination was one to be filed away as unsuccessful against this particular style of opposition, having only won 11-8. The Malawians rested their main shooter in Mvula, yet still found a crafty combination to challenge elite opposition.
Australia 72 defeated Malawi 22
Caitlin Bassett GS, Gretel Tippett GA, Paige Hadley WA, Liz Watson C, Jamie-Lee Price WD, Jo Weston GD, Courtney Bruce GK
Bench – Kelsey Browne, Sarah Klau, Caitlin Thwaites, Steph Wood, April Brandley
Alinafe Kamwala GS, Sindi Simtowe GA, Bridget Kumwenda WA, Thandie Galleta C, Joanna Kachilika WD, Caroline Mtukule GD, Looreen Ngwira GK
Bench – Joyce Mvula, Grace Mwafulira, Jane Chimaliro, Towera Vinkhumbo, Takondwa Lwazi
Umpires– Gary Burgess, Joan Yuliani
Caitlin Bassett – 24/28 (86%)
Gretel Tippett – 17/19 (94%)
Caitlin Thwaites – 21/21 (100%)
Steph Wood – 10/10 (100%)
Ainafe Kamwala – 3/6 (50%)
Sindi Simtowe – 10/11 (91%)
Jane Chimaliro – 9/14 (64%)
Courtney Bruce 6
Loreen Ngwira 4
Liz Watson 29
Kelsey Browne 14
Paige Hadley 10
Takondwa Lwazi 10
Sindi Simtowe 7
Thandi Galleta 6
Takondwa Lwazi 5
Caitlin Bassett, Australian captain
“They’re obviously a country that has so much pride, and we can see at times how athletic they are out there, and the things that they can do are just spectacular. So, look I think the timing changed up a little bit, there was a LITTLE bit more physicality, but I think it’s more with different combinations and things like that which settled nicely in the end.
“Look I was watching Sarah [Klau] out there, and I think for someone so tall to be so mobile is awesome, and to have that option of her and Courtney back there, but almost at times they were having to bend down almost to get their hands for intercepts, which was hard to do. We got a bit of contact and attention from the umpires from that. No look, I was really happy, their combination’s coming along really nicely, and it’s nice to have that option in defence if we need it.
“When you’re coming on I think in an international test it’s a lot harder than if we’re doing it back at home, and countries that you’ve never played against before you don’t know what they’re going to do. So I think when Kelsey kinda settled and we got that ball to her, that’s when she’s most comfortable, and when we can get her on circle edge and feeding, that’s really her strength.
About the nerves sitting on the bench as opposed to playing…
“Yeah look I was saying that to April [Brandley, injured] before we came out. In January I sat and watched those three tests, and I felt overwhelmed with nerves, I almost felt powerless sitting on the sideline, and I think she felt the same way, so for me when I come off, when I get to sit on the bench, because you’re still a part of the game you can actually relax a little bit more knowing that you can come on if you need to, whereas if you’re not even getting to sit on that main bench, you can almost feel powerless at times, so hopefully we can put her mind at rest, she was a big inspiration for us today.