Stacey Marinkovich’s appointment as coach of the Diamonds in August 2020 took many commentators and fans by surprise, and since then, her decisions have been under public scrutiny.
Following the recent selection of the 21-strong national squad, and the development squad of 19, there has been plenty of speculation about the process involved. Netball Scoop exclusives with national selector Annie Sargeant and this interview with Marinkovich have answered some of those difficult questions.
Remaining impartial while a club and national coach
In 2021, Marinkovich has worn two separate hats – West Coast Fever club coach, and Diamonds’ head coach. While some fans have speculated how Marinkovich maintains impartiality towards Fever athletes in the Diamonds’ selection process, coaching a club and national team is relatively common in the sporting world.
Brian Goorjian, for example, coaches the Australian Boomers basketball team, together with the Illawarra Hawks, while Kylee Byrne manages the Australian Under 21s and the Sunshine Coast Lightning.
Marinkovich was adamant that for the three selectors to pick the best possible team and achieve successful outcomes for the Diamonds, she had to remain clear eyed. She said, “Anybody that knows me, knows that when I am in a particular role I am fully bought in and very clear on the direction that I want to drive that programme.
“With Fever it’s to win a championship, with the Diamonds it’s to win marquee events.
“So there is absolutely no space or time for bias. You have a really strong directive for success, and you only put yourself and your programmes on the back foot if you go down that line.
“At different points you will have different levels of relationships with players, but it’s my responsibility as coach to make sure that whatever environment I’m in, that I understand the athletes I’m coaching, that I’m helping them to be the best player they can be, and that the programme is the best that it can be.
“Coaches are linked and connected to different clubs all the time. But when you put on a uniform, and particularly the Diamonds’ one, your vision for that programme must be extreme.”
Selection of the Diamonds’ squad
Selection of a team isn’t based just on recent games, but from performances across the current season and a strong understanding of previous matches. Whilst the selectors have some subjective thoughts about the players they’re observing, they’re outweighed by objective measurements that are collected and assessed, as well as a vision of what the team game plan requires.
Marinkovich said, “The data is collated, we watch and track how a player is evolving from season to season. It’s becoming more complex as the range of objective measures we have grows.”
“The first part is getting a squad that has versatility, variation, and skill sets that can adapt to different international opposition. There are a few rookies in there, but they are selected with a clear focus that they can take the court and make an impact. It’s a balance – they will continue to improve, but they’ve been selected because they are deserving of being in the best netball squad in Australia.”
One of the biggest challenges for the selectors will be reducing the squad of 21 to a team of 12 plus three reserves. Marinkovich said, “When we go into national camp we will have a good look at combinations and performances, and see what transfers from Suncorp Super Netball into the Diamonds’ game plan, with a focus on what is needed to play against international opposition.
“Timing and connection is important, along with strong relationships. Players have to be able to work with different players around them, so what skill sets do they have, and how will they relate to others?
“Some athletes are natural playmakers, while others are more gifted with athleticism. So it’s finding that balance, who can control the tempo and pace when required, and who can demand the ball under the most physical of pressure. It’s a balancing act, and I’m looking forward to what the trials will bring. When so many gifted athletes are brought together, the intensity goes up another level.
“These players go hammer and tong at each other during the domestic season to get the upper hand.
“But as soon as they walk into the Diamonds’ environment, they are there for each other. That’s what sport is, and the unity that comes from earning the Diamonds’ uniform is pretty amazing.”
Including rehabilitating athletes in the national squad
Stacey Marinkovich was appointed as the Diamonds’ head coach in August 2020, one year after Jess Thirlby (England) and two years after Noeline Taurua (New Zealand). With two of the Diamonds’ rival coaches now well entrenched in their programmes, and just one year remaining until the Commonwealth Games, time is crucial in trying to build an eclectic group of Australian players into a winning combination and culture.
As a result, the selectors have chosen to include the injured Liz Watson and Kiera Austin in the Diamonds’ squad, to take part in that process. It’s particularly important for Watson, given that she will undoubtedly be part of the Diamonds’ leadership group, and quite possibly the incoming captain.
Marinkovich said, “We saw their contribution in the Constellation Cup earlier this year, and they will be in the mix for future teams.
“Given that we have such limited time together, we have to make sure those players are around the group. They need to be part of the culture, understand the game plan, so that when they are ready to play again, they are not having to learn everything we’ve already done. Wherever possible we are trying to include them.”
The size of the Development squad
Eyebrows were raised at 19 players being named in the Development squad, quite likely the largest of its size in Australian netball history. However, the cancellation of the Netball World Youth Cup this year, the reduced playing opportunities afforded by the Covid impacted Australian Netball Competition, and the 2020 and 2021 cancellations of the 17U and 19U national championships, made it imperative according to Marinkovich.
“The younger athletes in Suncorp Super Netball have had so few opportunities over the last couple of years, that we chose not to limit their numbers, but give them exposure to the next steps in the Australian pathway, and really capture the depth of the youth coming through. They are the future of Australian netball.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum athletes including Emily Mannix, Jemma Mi Mi, Kate Eddy and Tara Hinchliffe, who’ve had injury interrupted preseasons or seasons, have been added. Marinkovich explained, “It’s important to look at those players individually, what will continue to benefit them, and with players like these, there is plenty of scope for them to evolve their game or regain their pre-injury form.”
It’s not yet known what camp or playing opportunities will be available to the Development squad. Like so much else, it will have to fit around Covid based restrictions, border closures, hubs and bubbles, with mandated time also required for players away from the netball environment.
Athletes that weren’t selected
There are always decisions that are criticised by fans and commentators, and in the case of the 2021/22 squad, it was the exclusion of former Diamonds including Kim Ravaillion, Gabi Simpson, Laura Scherian and Kelsey Browne. Others felt that GIANTS rookies, Maddie Hay and Sophie Dwyer, should have been in the Diamonds’ squad rather than the development group.
While Marinkovich couldn’t provide details about individual athletes, she said, “The door is not shut for players who were omitted. The Commonwealth Games squad is not set, and it doesn’t keep people out. You don’t have to be named in the Development squad to be invited into the Diamonds’ environment.
Players are invited to discuss their omission, although it’s a decision left to each individual. Marinkovich said, “There is scope for athletes to receive feedback, and I’ve already had conversations with a number of players and club coaches to highlight their strengths and positives, and where they can continue to evolve.
“This year we had limited preseason competition due to Covid, but the selectors will be looking closely at the next pre-season competition, and hopefully we will have good oversight as to how all athletes have progressed.
“Players are constantly being viewed, could be called up, and the door is always open to chat.”
While many athletes have known the chill of omission over the years, re-selection of athletes – including Bianca Chatfield, Susan Pettitt and Paige Hadley in recent years – does occur.
The Diamonds’ game plan
There should be little surprise that midcourt combinations from the Swifts, GIANTS, Vixens and Fever have been selected in the Diamonds’ squad, as in today’s Covid riddled world, there is limited camp time and challenges around player accessibility, to form on court connections. While the world class pairing of Kate Moloney and Liz Watson is temporarily on hold due to the latter’s injury, there’s a possibility that at least one of the other combinations will make its way into the Diamond’s Constellation Cup team.
Marinkovich said of the midcourt, “We want to play with speed and agility that provides a direct line to the goal circle. They can be quick and dynamic, or use their strength and placement of ball, whether that’s flat or high.
“It’s important to have variations due to the different international styles. Jamaica love aerial defence, so the ball needs to be played low. New Zealand play an area defence, while England have a mixture of both. So versatility gives us options that we can change with personnel, as well as with strategic instructions.”
She said of the defenders, “We have a lot of players that can play one on one, or shut down – that’s the backbone of Suncorp Super Netball – but we also have to enable their instincts and their ability to read and go for the pick off ball, or control an area of space on court. Our defenders have all played against world class shooters this year, and we’ve seen how they match up against different opposition.
“We have players that suit the taller post-up shooters, and ones that can defend the moving circle. They need to be cohesive and have trust in each other, so that when the ball is contested, that player is given back up and support.”
“In the shooting circle we also have the ability to post-up, or to play a moving circle. Cara Koenen is a whiz along the baseline, Gretel Bueta can play in a moving circle or post up with her height and strength, Caitlin Bassett is a post-up shooter, while Sophie Garbin has taken it to all the goal keepers with her strength and her hold.
“When you add in playmakers like Steph Wood out the front, the options are exciting.”
“Last year in the Constellation Cup we wanted to play a certain way, and it lasted a certain length of time. Now we need to add some layers so that we can continue to attack, to challenge, and to change the game if the opposition are looking comfortable.
Marinkovich’s biggest challenge this season
When asked about her biggest challenges over recent months, Marinkovich nominated the uncertainties that Covid is creating, and finals’ time. “This time of year is when you are finalising selection, preparing for Suncorp Super Netball finals, and getting schedules sorted for international matches. Along with the usual club based workload, I’m watching all the matches a couple of times, and all of the New Zealand games. There isn’t time for much outside netball at the moment, but I’ve been well supported by Netball Australia, and West Coast Fever. Every interaction with staff or players from either group has been clear, and communication is strong.”
Once Marinkovich’s tenure with Fever comes to an end, she will relocate to the east coast to access a greater number of teams and athletes more easily.
Time limitations with the national team
As coach of the Diamonds, one of the adaptations that Marinkovich will have to make is the limited amount of time with the squad, compared to the day in, day out, club environment. She said, “You are much more succinct in the Diamonds’ environment. Conversations have to be really clear and more leadership has to come from the staff.
“In the Diamonds environment, as the Coach you need to drive the vision. You need to maximise the time you have to provide role clarity and buy in. As much as it’s important to engage with the players so that they are contributing, you also need to balance that with strong leading as to how we are going to be successful.’
“It’s crucial that you have a very clear understanding of what the strengths of the group are and make that the backbone of your plan, and then also understanding where you are vulnerable, and addressing those areas.”