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A look at the moments that shaped netball in 2015, and what lies ahead in 2016.
1. Diamonds win the Netball World Cup
An Australian three-peat was always the most likely outcome of the rebadged Netball World Cup, and so it was – a 58-55 defeat of New Zealand witnessed by a world record crowd of 16,572 at Sydney Olympic Park. The match was decided by the Diamonds’ brilliant 16-7 first quarter; had there been a fifth, well, that might have been very interesting.
Adding the World Cup to their 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games gold means Australia hold both major titles concurrently for the first time since 1998-99, with head coach Lisa Alexander flagging her intention to build a dynasty over the second half of her eight-year term.
Yet New Zealand also made some very positive statements in August, exceeding many expectations by upsetting the Diamonds during the preliminary rounds, and winning the last three quarters of the final. By year’s end, they had lost the annual Constellation Cup series by only two goals, helping to breathe new life into what was becoming a worryingly one-sided rivalry.
More broadly, the great hope is that the success of the Netball World Cup helps eventually to build the audience and profile of a sport whose greatest strength remains its vast participation base. Laura Geitz, an exceptional role model, is a superstar already. Long may she play.
The Diamonds celebrate with the trophy after winning the gold medal match against New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
2. Diamonds lose at the Netball World Cup
A revamp of the World Cup format ensured that The Big Two would play each other in the group stage in Sydney to add some oomph to to the tournament’s early stages. While the day-three events had little impact on how events would unfold in a scheduling sense, what was an important morale-booster for the Silver Ferns was also a timely jab in the ribs for the raging title favourites.
The Diamonds had logged 21 consecutive victories over two years, nine in succession against New Zealand, and last suffered a World Cup loss back in 2003. Poor midcourt transition, movement and defensive pressure all contributed to the shock five-goal loss. Ouch. But if this was not part of the script then, tellingly, the bear had been poked.
“We’re fired-up,” vice-captain Kim Green said before the training session that was promptly arranged for the no-longer-a-rest day that followed. “I can tell you every single one of those players, as soon as we walked back into that change-room, wanted to get back out there and play that all over again.” Instead, revenge came a week later, on finals day. And was marvellously sweet.
Shoot to thrill: Maria Tutaia of New Zealand shoots during the preliminary victory over Australia. Photo: Getty Images
Julie Corletto had confirmed her long-held intention to retire after a third World Cup five weeks before it began. She finished it not just with a third title, but her legend enhanced, the crazy-brave defensive warrior having played for more than half the final with a broken foot.
Green, the experienced mid-courter, was the next to announce her departure, after 74 Tests, followed by versatile back-up defender Bec Bulley. Thus, not unusually at the end of the four-yearly netball cycle, when two relatively fallow years lie ahead, a quarter of the team had to be replaced.
Given that Bianca Chatfield had made her international exit 12 months earlier in Glasgow, and assuming that the brilliant Madi Robinson slots directly back in to Green’s place once her knee rehab is complete, the rebuild of the defence looms largest for coach Alexander.
Geitz, the inspirational captain and goal keeper, was coaxed into playing on, for the time being at least, her importance as both player and leader underlined by the fact that plans to rest her for the Australian stretch of the Constellation Cup were shelved after a depleted squad’s loss of the penultimate game in Melbourne. Sharni Layton is Corletto’s obvious replacement out the front of Geitz, with Clare McMeniman as a seasoned back-up and Jo Weston and April Letton among the next in line.
“Crazy-brave” defender Julie Corletto (right) in action against New Zealand’s Bailey Mes. Photo: Getty Images
4. Classic ANZ Championships grand final
The Test matches, notably the Austraia-New Zealand variety, are what have traditionally put bums on seats and eyeballs on screens, while the club netball of the ANZ Championship is still slowly building an audience – on this side of the ditch, at least.
Hence the significance of this year’s cracking trans-Tasman grand final between the Queensland Firebirds and NSW Swifts in Brisbane. In a tight and physical clash, the Firebirds trailed by six goals during the third quarter before prevailing 57-56, Gretel Tippett scoring the winner in the last half-minute to cruel the Swifts’ bold attempt to become just the second team to win a grand final away from home. Corletto’s nose was broken, along with many Swifts’ hearts, but this was the domestic game at its most competitive and dramatic.
“It was the most unbelievable finish to any grand final in any sport,” wrote Fairfax columnist Liz Ellis. “If you didn’t have goosebumps and some type of gut-wrenchingly emotional response to it you might want to check your pulse, because something is seriously amiss.”
The Firebirds’ Romelda Aiken in action during the epic ANZ Championship grand final against the Swifts. Photo: Getty Images
5. Bassett’s big night, and year
Defenders and midcourters had dominated the first seven years of voting for the Liz Ellis Diamond, until Caitlin Bassett’s prolific season was crowned with the glittering individual prize at the annual awards night in November.
The statistics – 964 goals at 89 per cent accuracy across both domestic and international games -were impressive enough, but Bassett was also pivotal in dragging perennial Australian stragglers the West Coast Fever into their maiden trans-Tasman final series (a seven-goal loss to the surging Swifts, but an overdue breakthrough nonetheless).
For the national team, the 193-centimetre beanpole has also been a game-changer, as Australia has moved away from the two-moving-shooters style to one small (crafty veteran Nat Medhurst) and one super-tall (the smiling colossus known to her teammates as C-Bass) who largely plays a holding game under the post.
Her 48 goals (from 51 attempts) in the World Cup decider was a record, even in previous finals that have stretched into overtime. At 27, Bassett is in her prime; stronger in mind and body and with surer hands, with 1500 international goals already, and surely many more to come.
Lateisha Kidner of Wales and Caitlin Bassett of Australia compete for the ball. Photo: Getty Images
Predictions for 2016
It would be unwise to read too much into the 2-2 Constellation Cup result against New Zealand that closed an otherwise triumphant year for the Diamonds, who had already won the main prize by then, but only retained the lesser trophy by the skin by a mere whisker on goal aggregate. Robinson will make a welcome return from knee surgery via the ANZ Championship, and to the Diamonds thereafter.
In the meantime, as netball takes a breather from big international tournaments until the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, next month’s tour of England restarts the international program. With Geitz and Kim Ravaillion spelled, centre Liz Watson will be blooded, and court-time given to the likes of Weston, Gabi Simpson and Gretel Tippett as part of the Australian regeneration. Expect some close results, and for the rule changes that take effect on January 1 to have the desired effect of keeping the game moving.
Second-ranked New Zealand will resume under new coach Janine Southby, and without warhorses Casey Kopua (pregnant) and Jodi Brown (retired), but will regain Maria Tutaia as the free-shooting half of the goaling combination with rebound queen Bailey Mes that worked so well at the World Cup. Defence may be more problematic.
Club-wise, expect the ANZ Championship strength to remain on this side of the Tasman, with the Queensland Firebirds well-equipped to become the first team to claim consecutive titles, and the Melbourne Vixens looking to rebound from a horribly disappointing year.
The Melbourne Vixens will want to rebound from a disappointing 2015 season. Photo: Michele Mossop
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