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Year in Review: Testing year for Silver Ferns

In what has been a year of two halves, the appointment of Noeline Taurua as head coach has injected a strong sense of purpose as the Silver Ferns build into a new era after an emotionally-charged 2018.

Hitting the ground running, the highly successful and popular Taurua was installed as the 11th coach of the Silver Ferns in late August, the Netball Quad Series and Constellation Cup allowing her time to assess and consolidate her requirements ahead of next year’s all-important Netball World Cup assignment.

With plenty of groundwork to cover, a change in fortunes was never going to happen overnight but Taurua was afforded the opportunity to test and work with a number of players. There is certainly more to come and enough to suggest the Silver Ferns are headed for brighter and more prosperous times ahead.

As 2018 unfolded, there were ominous signs early on for the Silver Ferns in a year which involved a hectic 21-Test international programme, including two Quad Series played across both hemispheres, the Taini Jamison series, Commonwealth Games and the Constellation Cup.

Starting in January and wrapping up in October, in what was a far from vintage year for the women in black, the over-riding factor to emerge through 2018 was that the standard in world Netball has improved dramatically and there is now real competition across the six top teams.  

That has not been an excuse for the Silver Ferns, who have a proud tradition and without question set the highest of expectations, but the largely youthful team learned some valuable lessons after struggling to come to grips with the intensity and experience offered by some of their more finely-tuned opponents.

In the final build towards April’s Commonwealth Games, former coach Janine Southby and the Silver Ferns headed to England for the Northern Hemisphere leg of the Netball Quad Series in January.

The Silver Ferns opened their campaign with a thriller against the England Roses, the match finally being decided in extra time. Both teams had their chances to win in regular time after England successfully overcame a handy Silver Ferns lead, a boisterous home crowd getting the Roses over the line with a 64-57 win.

With the series moving to South Africa, the Silver Ferns repelled a tenacious SPAR Proteas challenge with a gritty 51-46 all-the-way win before unravelling 67-48 against a rampant Australia.

In a final hit-out before the Commonwealth Games, the Silver Ferns hosted the Jamaica Sunshine Girls, Malawi Queens and Fiji Pearls in the Taini Jamison Trophy on the North Shore in March.

Playing the popular Malawi team first-up, the Silver Ferns produced a consistently strong all-round performance to deliver a compelling 75-42 win. In the process, promising defender Michaela Sokolich-Beatson became Silver Fern #169 while shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio made her return to international Netball following the birth of her first child.

Spearheaded by towering shooter Jhaniele Fowler, the aerial and accurate Jamaicans showed their growing stature to grab a well-executed 59-51 win over the Silver Ferns after a drawn first quarter. Hitting the lead during the second quarter, Jamaica remained in front for the rest of the match, absorbing everything the Silver Ferns threw at them.

The Silver Ferns were untroubled in posting an 88-27 win over Fiji which earned a re-match with Jamaica in the final.

A patient and steady Jamaica showed their earlier win over the Silver Ferns was no fluke, the Sunshine Girls benefitting from many of their players now plying their trade in various leagues around the world, in the process providing greater accuracy to secure the Taini Jamison Trophy with a 59-53 win.

Hard-working midcourter Claire Kersten received a late call-up to the Silver Ferns Commonwealth Games team after on-going injury problems ruled Kayla Cullen out of the tournament.

In their opening match of pool play against Uganda on the Gold Coast, the Silver Ferns prevailed 64-51 but could not afford to let their guard down against a team that has climbed from 15th to seventh in the world rankings over the past three years.

Continuing to mix and match their combinations against Wales, the Silver Ferns were rocked when losing the second quarter but bounced back with a strong second half to record a comfortable 70-44 win.

In terms of their placing in the pool, the Silver Ferns needed a positive result against Malawi but failed to contain their opponents’ relentless challenge during the second half. In control after a solid first half, the Silver Ferns were sent reeling in the second as an increasingly-confident Malawi moved into the lead on the stroke of halftime and kept their noses in front for the remainder of the match.

It was an historic moment for Malawi, the 57-53 result propelling them to a first-ever win over the Silver Ferns.

Battling for their survival in the tournament, the under-pressure Silver Ferns needed a convincing win against Scotland and delivered with a withering first quarter when their opponents scored just two goals, to set up a 60-29 win.

The Silver Ferns produced a close and tight contest for the first half in their final pool match against eventual gold medallists England but the experienced Roses held a decisive edge during the second 30 minutes. The New Zealanders could not match England’s accuracy where both shooters were firing, consigning them to a 54-45 loss.

There was an anxious wait before the Silver Ferns place in the semi-finals was confirmed and with that came a clash against world No. 1 Australia.

The Silver Ferns were never really in the match, falling behind early and never recovering as they slumped to a 65-44 loss.

A gruelling week of Netball at the Commonwealth Games ended on a disappointing note for the Silver Ferns when they lost for the third time in as many weeks, 60-55, to Jamaica in the bronze medal match.

In the wake of the Silver Ferns underwhelming impact at the Commonwealth Games, a thorough independent review was instigated. The findings have led to a number of areas of change, the appointment of Taurua highlighting the emphasis on rebuilding a strong Silver Ferns team and environment while restoring a competitive and winning edge.

That started with the second leg of the Netball Quad Series hosted by New Zealand and Australia where Taurua got her first opportunity to test the waters and lay the foundations.

After 18 months away, dynamic midcourter Laura Langman was handed the captaincy on her return to international Netball while fellow midcourter Gina Crampton and defender Jane Watson earned recalls. Impressive domestic seasons gave up-and-coming shooter Aliyah Dunn and livewire midcourter Elisapeta Toeava the opportunity to become first-time Silver Ferns.

A serious knee injury on the eve of the series ruled athletic defender Temalisi Fakahokotau out of contention with Michaela Sokolich-Beatson taking her place.

It took the new-look Silver Ferns time to find their feet against Commonwealth Games champions England in their opening match but they remained well in the contest until the three-quarter mark. However, England’s experience shone through in the run to the finish line as they successfully shut the Silver Ferns out of the game to clinch a 52-39 win.

It was a much more efficient and effective Silver Ferns who lined up against the SPAR Proteas, an 11-goal unanswered scoring streak early in the first quarter setting up a comprehensive 61-37 win.

Played in Melbourne, the Quad Series decider against Australia gave glimpses of where the Silver Ferns are headed. Plucky and challenging across all areas of the court, the Silver Ferns pushed Australia all the way with a spirited and never-say-die attitude as the Diamonds scrambled to a 60-55 win.

For the season-ending four-Test Constellation Cup series, newcomer Erikana Pedersen, Maia Wilson and Sulu Fitzpatrick, back for the first time since playing a solitary Test in 2011, were introduced.

The Silver Ferns made a bright start in the Brisbane opener to be all-square after the first quarter but were outclassed for the remainder of the match as Australia went on to win 57-42.

There was a much-improved effort from the Silver Ferns in the second outing, Townsville, in northern Queensland, hosting a Test for the first time and one which had a special significance in New Zealand Netball history.

Lining up in Townsville for her 146th Test, Langman’s longevity and immense contribution to Netball was honoured when she became the most capped player in Silver Ferns history.

The result did not go New Zealand’s way but there was plenty of resilience and spirited determination shown in the 56-47 loss.

Hamilton staged the third Test, the Silver Ferns celebrating a return to home soil with their best outing of the year and a decisive 55-44 win over the Diamonds.

Maria Folau was at her scintillating best with a standout shooting performance which netted 40 goals from 41 attempts while Watson and vice-captain Katrina Grant continued their recent strong form to nullify Australia’s shooting options.

There was plenty of anticipation ahead of the fourth and final Test of the year in Wellington but a wounded Australia kept the Silver Ferns on the back foot throughout to post a resounding 58-47 win in a bruising match-up to keep their hands on the trophy.

Taurua has now set the platform. She has viewed a number of playing options and combinations up close against a variety of opposition and has a clear idea of what she wants and what will be required from the players.

The real work begins now as she sets her sights firmly on the bigger picture and positive results at next year’s World Cup.