Some familiar faces helped steer Australia past a spirited South African to win the first match of the 2018 Quad Series.
Susan Pettitt and Caitlin Bassett settled the Diamonds ship after a focused Proteas side lead the reigning World Cup holders at half time and pushed them all the way to the final whistle. Pettitt’s superior court craft and speed, combined with clinical finishing proved decisive for an Australian side that looked far from convincing – or convinced – in the early stages of the game and her combination with captain Bassett proved crucial to the win.
South African coach Norma Plummer was buoyed by her side’s performance, after only limited time with her charges in recent weeks.
“With so little time together before this series, I was very pleased with what we put out on court. We had our chances, but didn’t quite finish them off. With some more resilience, I know that this group will start to pull off these opportunities. Overall, the game was pretty pleasing, but I do love a win and they will come.”
Australian coach Lisa Alexander opted to start the Quad Series with Caitlin Thwaites and Gretel Tippett as her shooting partnership and initially the tall combination posed problems for Karla Pretorious and Phumza Maweni.
Thwaites, in particular, used clever body positioning and foot speed to create baseline shooting opportunities, which allowed Australia to pull out to a 10-6 lead. However, Courtney Bruce’s lack of discipline in defence continued to provide the Proteas with free shots at goal and with captain Bongiwe Msomi a bundle of nervous energy in marshalling her side, South Africa’s confidence slowly grew.
South Africa exerted more control at the start of the second quarter, taking the simple route to goal and working the angles to keep creating opportunities in attack. Pretorius closed down the movement of Tippett for Australia and despite one trademark layup goal, the former basketballer seemed strangely ponderous and lacking creativity.
A run of five goals brought South Africa within one, before a couple of simple errors gave the initiative back to Australia. However, where the Proteas would have buckled in the past, their midcourt, marshalled ably by Erin Burger in her 100th international appearance, settled and pushed on again.
Focused by some clinical finishing and great interplay between Lenize Potgeiter and Maryka Holtzhausen, the Proteas once again gave chase, drawing level at 24 all with two minutes remaining in the quarter before taking the lead into half time.
Lisa Alexander shuffled her line up for the start of the second half, introducing Kate Moloney at C and Pettit at GA. The greater speed and ball craft in attack for Australia yielded immediate benefits, with Pettit using her superior body positioning to create shooting opportunities and release Thwaites along the baseline.
Australia slowly edged ahead and with Thwaites replaced by Bassett midway through the quarter, many thought that the world number one would cruise to victory. South Africa thought otherwise and redoubled their efforts in defence. The higher intensity brought several warnings for players on both sides, but neither side lost control in their efforts to take the win.
Kim Ravallion took to the court again, replacing Moloney for the final quarter, while Emily Mannix received her second Australia cap at GK, after Bruce received an official warning late in the third period.
The Queensland Firebirds midcourter immediately started to dominate the Australian front line, dictating play and releasing her shooters into space with clinical precision. South Africa’s defensive unit held firm under intense pressure, with Precious Mthembu, Pretorius and Maweni all turning over Australian attacks in the goal third, but the target offered by Bassett and Pettit’s willingness to drive to the post, gave the Diamonds too many options for the Proteas to cover.
Australia pushed out to a five goal advantage but there was more drama to come, with both Holtzhausen and Potgeiter willing to go to post whenever the opportunity arose and the gap closed to within two with only three minutes to left in the match.
Gabi Simpson snatched a vital intercept for Australia which calmed the nerves and despite some dogged defence in the South African midcourt, the Diamonds did just enough the win.
Lisa Alexander acknowledged that there is still plenty of work to do.
“I’m pleased that we got through that game, but we have to make sure we play great team netball and I don’t think we managed that today. We need to improve our defence across the court, as well as our transition work, and this is something that needs our full attention ahead of our next games.”
Australia’s performance lacked the clinical passing and movement of previous Diamonds sides and while some of that may be down to travel fatigue and unfamiliarity with the surroundings, the Diamonds look to have work to do to re-establish their domination.
Defensively, April Brandley was the stand out performer, but with Mannix lacking international experience and Bruce seeming unable to overcome her indiscipline, the return of Laura Geitz from maternity leave could be the winning solution for Australia. With the Commonwealth Games only weeks away, Alexander certainly has some selection headaches ahead of her.
Australian Diamonds 54 def South Africa 50
(15-12, 25-26, 38-37, 54-50)
Player of the match: Bongiwe Msomi (South Africa)
Starting line ups
Changes: Q3 – GA Pettit, C Maloney, GS Bassett, Q4: GK Mannix
Thwaites 22/23 96%
Tippett 8/9 89%
Pettitt 11/11 100%
Bassett 13/14 93%
Potgieter 34/38 90%
Holtzhausen 16/18 89%
Cover image: Simon Leonard