After two close battles in the first two Constellation Cup tests in New Zealand, it would have been foolhardy to place a bet on either side. Without centre Paige Hadley for the rest of the series due to a fractured right wrist, the Australians had a somewhat restricted midcourt. The Sydney crowd were not disappointed, with the rivals each taking up the momentum several times, with Australia able to find a six-goal lead but the Silver Ferns also taking a three-goal buffer at one point. In the end, the dominance of Laura Langman, Karin Burger, Maria Folau and Ameliaranne Ekenasio, and their performance at the crunch end of the match, was too classy – the Kiwis took out their second single-goal win of the series.
New Zealand had a confident, patient start, with all their defenders involved in bringing the ball through. Katrina Rore showed slick dodging to evade the zippy Laura Scherian. Ekenasio returned to unflappable form on the shot despite the incredible hassling across the ground from Courtney Bruce. Meanwhile, the Australians hit the two next goals thanks to the athleticism of Gretel Tippett, once with a massive split, and then with a huge leap to the post, fed by Caitlin Bassett.
The feeding from Scherian was stunning to both her former Sunshine Coast teammate, Bassett, and to Tippett. The Diamonds shooters had the variety and unpredictability that saw them in ample space, leading 7-2 after barely three and a half minutes.
After an initial shock, the Kiwis started to gradually settle into their attacking pattern. Although the pass to backspace worked at times, the feeders were perhaps too focused on it. They were also having trouble giving the ball quickly as both Bruce and Jo Weston got around the body of the front hold too easily, and the ball was only coming through with a pinch of luck. They also were reverting to form of a few years ago, using Laura Langman over and over but failing to look for Gina Crampton at wing attack, who was sliced out of action by Ash Brazill. Halfway through the quarter, the visitors were trailing 7-11.
Scherian continued to carve up the opposing defence, almost looking like a training run. Some of the feeds from Australia did put Bassett under physical pressure, but she was reliable in the hands and core strength. The ball movement and deception were fast enough that the Silver Ferns defenders were repeatedly caught confused and metres out of position. New Zealand were perhaps fortunate to stay in touch, down 13-16 at the quarter time break.
Folau and Ekenasio were almost identically sharing the shooting load – when Bruce had Folau stuck way out of the circl near the centre third, her goaling partner was able to create an option one-on-one against Weston, impressive on the front hold and used the quick dart from behind direct to the feeder.
When Jane Watson took advantage of a completely frozen Australian attack line, sailing through for a classy intercept, Ekenasio again nailed the shot. Through the middle part of the quarter New Zealand had a 6-1 run of goals, briefly closing the gap to a solitary goal.
Even though the Diamonds regained composure and a 4-goal lead quite quickly, and Tippett had shot 12/12, coach Lisa Alexander made a change bringing Tegan Philip into goal attack. She had a shaky start, scoring zero from two in her four minutes on court. It was just the beginning of some rapid-fire shooter substitutions for the home team.
For the third quarter, Shannon Saunders replaced Crampton at wing attack for the Silver Ferns, and Tippett came back on in goal attack. Burger was a lively force, being once lifted over the shot by Watson, getting two amazing possession gains from simple, stunning vertical leap from beyond four feet of defence, and bringing the ball through to attack swiftly.
After four minutes of the second half, New Zealand regained the lead, 32-31. They were dominating all over the court, Folau finding it far too easy to feed the ball to Ekenasio even with Bruce right on her back. Additionally, in the first six minutes, Bassett and Tippett each had just a miserly one goal from one attempt.
The Australians made big changes, with Sarah Klau on to goal keeper, and a new combination of shooters, with Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip. Thwaites came on hot, sinking nine goals from ten attempts, and her familiar partnership with her Melbourne Vixens teammate immediately got the Kiwi defence’s heads spinning. Scherian continued to fly around the goal third, always knowing precisely where to be on the second phase.
Australia intensified their blockade of the middle corridor, making their opponents pass across, around, and back repeatedly. However, the visitors maintained their patience, recognising the exact moment when the two shooters opened and split the Aussie defence.
The third quarter ended thrillingly, as New Zealand seemed certain to take a last-moment goal to break the drawn scoreline. However, Langman fended Brazill off on the circle edge with her right arm, attracting an obvious offensive penalty. The possession gain was brought through court, and Philip threw the perfect pass to Thwaites under pressure from both Silver Ferns defenders, gaining a penalty shot and taking a 43-42 lead right on the buzzer.
Langman, dynamite all night, started the final quarter heroically, taking two clean intercepts. She was dead-eye in feeding Folau’s move to the backspace, as Klau was caught with the wrong momentum. The Diamonds goal keeper was less intimidating on the shot compared to her predecessor Bruce, such that Ekenasio landed a perfect seven shots in the period.
While the Kiwis were using fast hands and feet, and giving passes often in less than half a second, happy to play around for an opening, the home side would look mid-to-long range, employ one or two fakes on almost every pass, using vision and baulks to make the Silver Ferns commit in defence. Scores were 50-all with seven minutes remaining, scoring slowing down as each team kept winning the ball back and preventing attempts to the post.
After one minute and forty seconds of no goals, it was Tegan Philip who finally broke the drought, giving Australia the momentum from having a centre-pass advantage. Burger kept barrelling out of the circle, for a second time smashing into the powerful Liz Watson. Watson seemed to be unfazed, as Burger merely succeeded in causing herself more bruising. Changes were made by each team in the same spot, Saunders on for Crampton at wing attack for New Zealand, and Jamie-Lee price taking Brazill’s spot at wing defence for Australia, due to Brazill rolling her ankle.
Scores remained 52-all for three entire minutes, as there were a series of desperate miscalculations from experienced players on both sides. An over-cooked huge feed from Philip to Thwaites, was followed by Folau pulling out of a clever roll causing Ekenasio to throw the ball over the sideline. Then Klau badly executed a long pass to Watson, and Rore took a turn hurling the ball over Langman’s head. Philip had the ball in fair shooting position but her indecision lead to a held ball. Finally, Crampton gave an amazing bounce feed to Ekenasio which was converted.
With 50 seconds to go, the score was 53 apiece, New Zealand taking a centre pass, with a successful shot in just 25 seconds. Australia had to smartly progress the ball, but the match MVP Langman took a sterling intercept off a low-released pass from Weston, and kept her team ahead at the final whistle.
New Zealand 54 defeated Australia 53
MVP: Laura Langman (New Zealand)
Caitlin Bassett 19/21 (91%)
Gretel Tippett 13/13 (100%)
Tegan Philip 5/8 (63%)
Caitlin Thwaites 16/17 (94%)
Maria Folau 27/31 (87%)
Ameliaranne Ekenasio 27/29 (93%)
Goals from gains
Australia 6/12 (50%)
New Zealand 6/10 (60%)
Goals from turnovers
Australia 6/16 (37%)
New Zealand 7/21 (33%)
Karin Burger 4 gains including 1 intercept, and 8 total deflections, 0 rebounds
Laura Langman 3 gains all 3 clean intercepts, and 1 deflection
Ash Brazill 3 gains including 2 intercepts, and total 5 deflections
Jo Weston 3 gains including 1 intercept, and total 5 deflections
Courtney Bruce 3 gains including 1 intercept, and total 3 deflections
Jane Watson 3 gains all 3 clean intercepts, and 4 deflections
Laura Scherian 14 centre receives 24 goal assists
Laura Langman 26 goal assists
Ameliaranne Ekenasio 21 centre receives 5 goal assists
Liz Watson 13 goal assists
Australia 21 turnovers, New Zealand 16
Tegan Philip 4 turnovers
Liz Watson 4 turnovers
Laura Scherian 3 turnovers
Caitlin Bassett 3 turnovers
Laura Langman 3 turnovers
What they said
Lisa Alexander, Australia
On the errors in the last few minutes… “We just didn’t play it as well as the Silver Ferns, it’s as simple as that. I think they’re still using their patient ball really, really smartly at the right times, and we’re still not being able to get ball back in that situation.
“I found the third quarter very frustrating for us – I thought we [forced] some held balls down in that end, and it’s disappointing for our defenders when we’re not getting that reward. But [in] any case, it is what it is, the changes I thought worked, so that was great. And that’s what we do, we roll onto Perth, we had our opportunities in the second quarter to really push on, we didn’t, and that shows the character of the Silver Ferns, and shows the rivalry of the two teams.”
On the rationale for changes…. “[Tippett was] on fire, depending from which way you see it. From our point of view there were just a few things that were not happening that we normally would see in her patterns of play. So, we just wanted her to have a little rest and have a look at it, and go back out there and do the job, because her workload is so enormous in goal attack. And just to get a bit more punch, to be honest, with Tegan. Didn’t quite work how we wanted it to, but you know, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. And then, I think the only change we made at half time, Gretel back on, and bringing Sarah on for Courtney, just to tighten up. Maria had an outstanding game, she was enormous. There’s a few things I need to ask the umpires about, but I’ll leave that between us.”
“Tegan and Caitlin, they’ve got a combination. Our centre court grew then, and were able to play a more natural game, our my Australian game of front cuts and drive onto the circle and get it in. Overall they did a great job coming on.”
Caitlin Bassett, Australian captain
On being replaced by Thwaites… “No, [I don’t find it personal], I don’t own that goal shooter bib, respectfully, I get out there and do my job, or do the best that I can, and I thought Caity when she came on did a brilliant job as well, so, I know we’re two completely different players, and that’s why Lisa’s picked us in the team. Her strengths are different to my strengths. She took that ball strongly and turned to look at the post which is exactly what we wanted her to do. That drew the defenders back a bit more which then opened up the goal attack as well.”
Noeline Taurua, New Zealand coach
On whether players can be coached game smarts… “I think there has to be an understanding, or clarity around the strategy. Not only that, your plan A, plan B, and plan C if it breaks down, that needs to be clear. And I always think we talk about connections as well, so it’s not only on-court connection, but the connection between human beings, that makes a huge difference, knowing that when someone’s down, how do you help somebody pick up? And those subtleties. It’s something that works well for us, we’re very feely sort-of touchy people. Also on the contrast to that is, just drilling them as well, doing the same stuff, repetition, under huge pressure in training. As Laura said, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if people give 100% what more can you ask of them?”
Laura Langman, New Zealand captain
On which players will perform under pressure…. “You just know! Obviosuly, length of time playing with one another… I think… that’s a really good question, I think we genuinely enjoy being around each other’s company, I think that always does help, just as a starting point. And man we’ve watched a fair bit of tape!”
“Yes, you can coach players to get smarter, but sometimes in pressure moments it comes down to intuition, and just knowing. Nine times out of ten you’ve gotta just trust your gut, and go with intent.”