With an internationally inexperienced team, a restricted build up, and just eight caps as Australian coach, Stacey Marinkovich faced a formidable task at the Commonwealth Games. And while the Diamonds were quietly confident, many outside the camp doubted if the campaign would unfold successfully. However, after losing to Jamaica in pool play, Australia went on to claim a 55-51 goal victory against them in the gold medal match. And while Marinkovich is now firmly focused on the 2023 Netball World Cup, she took time to reflect on the winning campaign.
With Suncorp Super Netball finishing just 3 ½ weeks before the Commonwealth Games, and all players having a mandated week off afterwards, the Diamonds had little time to rest tired bodies and finalise their preparations. A seven day camp in Perth introduced match play against a men’s team, and started to bridge the time difference, following which the team flew directly to England and another camp in Manchester.
Courtesy of Covid-based limitations, the Diamonds had played just seven test matches in the past two years, so their attention was focused on the only real aspect they could control – their own performance. “All the energy was on the way we wanted to play,” said Marinkovich.
“Covid impacted our ability to prepare against other opposition, and as a result the focus became about how we wanted to play, how we connected out on court, and how we could create a pressured environment within our training camps.”
Ruby Bakewell-Doran, Jamie-Lee Price and Donnell Wallam travelled overseas as training partners, and when the Diamonds went into camp they had to depart. It was an emotional time according to Marinkovich. “It’s a selfless role – incredibly tough to be with the team you so desperately want to be part of, but play an instrumental role in preparing the team.
“They contributed to our preparation by driving standards at training, sharing insight at team meetings, whilst continuing to develop their own games. It was really emotional when they left us in Birmingham. That moment was the realisation that they were no longer a part of this experience and the team was to continue on without them. The emotion and appreciation showed by the team when they departed reflected just how connected they all were and that in our success many people have played a role.”
The Opening Ceremony
With stringent Covid protocols in place, netball matches starting the following day, and other teams not marching, the Diamonds nevertheless chose to be part of the Opening Ceremony. The opportunity did come with limitations – a brief entry and an early exit to a waiting bus.
According to Marinkovich, “Our girls had been working towards this moment for years – to be selected and then to step out on court in a pinnacle event. It was a moment for them to realise they’d really made it, this was reality for them, and the Games were about to start.
“And while we had a lot of expectation about what we wanted to achieve, it was important that our group was able to absorb the magnitude of what we were about to take part in.”
The early rounds and injury
With limited time off after Suncorp Super Netball, a number of players were nursing minor niggles – ankles, feet and backs among them, and were being load managed at camp and through pool play. Paige Hadley had a slight calf strain, but was progressing well in her recovery, and looked sharp in training sessions and match play before the Games started.
Sadly, she broke down in Australia’s third game, ending her tournament prematurely and throwing an extra workload on the remaining 11 players. While debate raged about whether Hadley should have been substituted out beforehand, Marinkovich said of the decision, “She didn’t have a torn muscle, just a slight strain, her symptoms were positive, and she had been moving in the right direction.
“Whilst Paige was limited by her injury the degree in which she contributed to the team has been recognised strongly amongst our group and she has shown that there are many ways in which you can impact and contribute to a team’s success.
“For all that she missed out on court, she made up for that around the team, from opposition analysis, to sitting down with her fellow midcourters and giving insights, to being a strong contributor in all areas of our preparation off the court.
“Paige has a tonne of knowledge and gave people the strength to understand they could go out there and do the job. Much of what she did wasn’t seen externally but her contribution certainly had an impact on the end result.”
A tournament ending injury can be catastrophic in the early rounds of pool play, but the Diamonds covered Hadley’s loss, swinging shooters Steph Wood and Kiera Austin into wing attack when captain Liz Watson needed a break. That ability was all part of the Diamonds’ planning according to Marinkovich.
“In a Covid world we had to make sure we had extra cover across multiple positions, as players could have been ruled out at any point. Our selection was really thorough around versatility and having as many bases covered as possible.
“People might not have seen that out on court during the Games, but it was tried and tested, and all the girls had an understanding of their role across multiple positions if needed.”
A considerable workload fell onto centre Kate Moloney, who as the least internationally experienced midcourter, might have expected more bench time. Marinkovich said, “She really lived up to what we know about her – someone that is particularly safe with the ball, has experience of many SSN finals, who can run all day, and provides a lot of support and voice out on court. She’s also really improved her feeding skills.
“So she had a strong and balanced performance and really stood up under pressure.”
Playing Jamaica in pool play and the English semi-final
For the first time at a Commonwealth Games, Jamaica defeated Australia in pool play 57-55. The Diamonds looked to be well in control at three quarter time, leading by six goals, but a devastatingly effective 17-9 last quarter by the Sunshine Girls saw them get over the line. Australia struggled to shift momentum, while the coaches were criticised for not making changes to oncourt personnel. Tweaks were needed ahead of the finals.
Marinkovich said, “We all had to get the balance right of recognising what we did well, and what we needed to improve on. We weren’t looking at drastic changes as we weren’t doing much wrong out on court. So it was simplifying our thinking and our messages. Trying to find key things we could impact, in terms of changes or what our opposition was doing out on court.
“Those things were in our control. We didn’t want to change how we played, just how we adapted to different moments.
“It was a very quick turn around before our next game, and we (the coaches) had to transfer what we’d learned to the team.”
As always, communication was critical. Marinkovich explained, “Sometimes we have team meetings, unit meetings, or work one-on-one to make sure players hear what we are saying, while also giving them the space to give feedback and insight about what they are thinking/experiencing.
“We look at what’s needed at particular times, and who else it impact or involves. For example, we might need to speak to a couple of shooters, because one is impacting the other, or include some of the midcourters in the conversation. It comes down to who we are trying to influence and who is part of the conversation.”
In the crucial semi against England, Australia always looked in control, and comfortably won the match 60-51. The vociferous crowd cheered on their home team, and paid out on any Australian mistakes. Marinkovich said, “The crowd were amazing, and to win showed that our girls loved the big moments, the environment and the occasion.
“We had some good insights against England from previous matches against them, we were familiar with what we were coming up against, what would challenge us, and what we had to do in those moments.”
The gold medal game against Jamaica
With little more than 24 hours till their gold medal match against Jamaica, the Diamonds spent time in rest and recovery. Marinkovich explained, “The players needed a clear head space, so that meant living the moment (of the English win) briefly and appreciating what we’d done to earn the opportunity to go for gold.
“To get balance we then needed to connect with family. We also targeted what we could improve on, both as players and coaches – recognising scenarios out on court, what we’d change, and then to be bold and make those choices.”
When Jamaica snuck out to a small lead in the second quarter, Marinkovich pulled two of those changes. She introduced Sarah Klau at goal keeper, moving Courtney Bruce to goal defence, and brought Cara Koenen on at goal shooter, shifting Gretel Bueta to goal attack.
Both moves were decisive – the defence stifled some of Jamaica’s attacking play and pulled in a few crucial opportunities in a highly attacking tournament, while Koenen’s movement kept Shamera Sterling in chase mode and restricted the superstar to just three gains, down from her tournament average of seven per match. Marinkovich said, “Jamaica is a team that once momentum shifts, they can attack very well and score very quickly, if they were able to keep their ball control and get the final feed into Jhaniele (Fowler).
“We needed to keep applying scoreboard pressure during the match, and have repeated, relentless efforts in defence. We had to make sure that when Jamaica were winning ball, they weren’t able to get it through court with any ease.
“We’d trained that shooting combination a fair bit, but it’s still fairly new in a match environment.”
While Koenen and Klau had limited playing minutes in the previous few rounds, Marinkovich had full confidence in her bench’s ability to perform out on court. She said, “What’s important is having open and transparent communication with all the players so they understand what we are looking at, so their perception and reality is balanced.
“It’s about empowering people to be at their best. Just because players are on the bench at times doesn’t mean they are playing poorly, it’s just that certain combinations at certain times are out there to do a job. So the messaging is around what they might need to improve on, or ‘you are doing a very good job but at this moment we are running with a different line, but your time will come.’”
With Jamaica’s scoring power, Marinkovich was like most – only convinced Australia had won in the final minute of the game. She said, “We could realise that what we were about to achieve was significant, and also sit back as coaches and soak in the reactions. Family up in the crowd, the girls getting up ready to run onto court, the sideways glances. It all seemed to happen in slow motion.
“You don’t grasp it all until you watch the match back again or look at photos. They are moments in time that will never be recreated.”
What the Diamonds learned off court
Marinkovich said that the team thrived under the leadership of Liz Watson and Steph Wood, who drove standards throughout the build up and tournament. “Our girls need a sense of belonging, and huge credit to Liz and Steph who created that environment and experience for everyone to be involved, including our families and friends in the crowd.
“Their level of humility is amazing, they don’t take anything for granted, they’re very real and honest in how they behave. They work with people, and so while it wasn’t a dictatorship, they also knew when they needed to be strong, and not only to have success but to bridge any gaps.
“What they helped create with the team is something to be proud of and they should always cherish.”
Time with families was limited under Commonwealth Games mandated Covid protocols, something which the group found tough. “Our team needs a space to escape that’s non-netball time, and particularly for Brazzy (Ash Brazill) and her kids, and Gretel and Bobby (Bueta). While everyone was different in what they needed, we made sure they had time to connect in the way that best suited them.
“We all knew in advance what that (Covid protocols) would look like, and we would get them to their families when we could. We had to find ways to make it work so they could get enough balance to do their jobs out on court.”
Juggling a dual act coaching Fever, tough Covid restrictions and criticism about her appointment, Marinkovich endured a tough first 18 months on the job. However, she knew what she was getting into. Marinkovich said, “There’s a lot of opinion or perception out there, and a high level of expectation that comes with coaching the Diamonds. But you accept the job knowing that. There’s no hiding from it.
“So for me, that meant leaving no stone unturned, being very collaborative with the high performance group, and maintaining confidence through working with a really professional group of people.
“Going into the Constellation Cup against New Zealand during Covid lockdowns wasn’t easy with limited preparation, and therefore gaining understanding of where the group was at, was difficult. In the end we knew we needed time to focus on our game, and implement the steps needed to take us further, rather than reacting to what was happening externally at certain moments in time.
“The Quad series really gave us more knowledge and confidence that we were heading in the right direction.
“But it’s the noise around sport that creates its atmosphere. At any given time you have to make decisions, and sometimes it works and at others they don’t go how you might expect.
“That’s sport, the pressure, the improvement you’re trying to drive every time you step out there, the connections you’re building. It’s brilliant.
“I love doing that on the world stage, and we will keep working hard as we build into the World Cup.”