Australian netball coach Lisa Alexander has paid her sympathies to old rival Janine Southby, but has her own trials to overcome as next year’s world championships loom. Suzanne McFadden reports.

Australian Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander sent her former Silver Fern “frenemy”, Janine Southby, a message over the weekend.

“It’s never a pleasant business,” Alexander says, of Southby’s very public resignation as New Zealand netball’s head coach.

“I gave her my best and my thoughts. In the coaching world, we always feel for each other. Even when we’re mortal enemies on the international netball court, it’s still a profession where you feel the heat for each other.

“You don’t particularly enjoy it when it happens to someone else, I can tell you.”

Alexander, coach of the world champion Diamonds for the past seven years, experienced the anguish in her first major coaching job, with the Melbourne Kestrels in Australia’s national league back in 1997. She was sacked at the end of her first season.

“Whatever happens, it’s usually the coach that gets the blame. And as coaches we understand that,” she says.

Talking on the phone from a wind-lashed Melbourne, Alexander won’t be drawn on who she thinks Southby’s successor will be. Especially when the favoured option for the Silver Ferns’ next head coach, Noeline Taurua, is plying her trade in Australia’s premier league.

“I’m certainly not telling New Zealand what I think. I’ll leave that for them to do,” she says.  

“But I’m sure they’ll come up with a process that will work, and they will get their coach, their best players will be out on the court, and we’ll have to prepare for them.

“New Zealand will be back firing and they will be a great opponent again.”

Alexander has no reason to gloat over New Zealand netball’s latest tribulations. Her own team are going through a recovery – having been knocked off their perch by the English Roses in the Commonwealth Games final.

“Everyone’s nipping at our heels. We have work to do”

– Lisa Alexander

Four of the most experienced Diamonds retired within 10 days of each other this month – a shockwave that would leave the Silver Ferns reeling. Remember, the review into the Ferns’ fourth-place fiasco on the Gold Coast pointed to, among other things, a lack of experience after the retirement of a huddle of key players.

But such is the depth of Australian netball, in flows a new stream of players – among them former New Zealand under-21 midcourter Jamie-Lee Price – with barely a public ripple.

So would Alexander have made wholesale changes to the Diamonds side had the retirements not come?

“It’s a really interesting question. We think change is inevitable, but we’re not going to make change for change’s sake. That’s important for everyone to understand. But we’re also going to embrace the opportunities the situation provides us,” she says.

“We’re less predictable when we have differences out on court, and I think that’s why we may have come a little unpicked in that Commonwealth Games final. We were a little too predictable.”

The wave of retirements across the ditch began with former Australian captain Laura Geitz, who’d played 71 tests in defence, and came back to international netball this year after the birth of her son, Barney.

Midcourter Madi Robinson (61 caps) followed two days later. She’d been in and out of the team over eight years: “My script has never been a fairytale,” she said.

But she was comfortable finishing her career with a Commonwealth Games silver medal on home soil.

The next day, it was seasoned shooter Susan Pettitt calling time on her netball career. The 71-test veteran had found it exhausting fighting her way back into the Diamonds for the Comm Games. Now she’s looking forward to working in her husband’s café in Albion Park.

But, the one that took Alexander by surprise a week later, was Sharni Layton. The loud and fierce defender, voted Australia’s international netballer of the year in 2016 and ’17, hadn’t been in the Diamonds side for a year – withdrawing to deal with mental health issues.

“I knew Sharni had had a tough time,” Alexander says, “and her health and wellbeing have always been uppermost in my mind. I was hoping she’d get to a point where she felt good enough to have another go, for another 12 months, but clearly that wasn’t the case.”

Since bringing her netball career to a close, there’s been “a lot of noise around Melbourne” about Layton switching codes to play in the hugely successful AFL Women’s league. “But we certainly don’t want to lose her to netball. Hopefully she will come back… as a mentor, a coach or a commentator,” says Alexander.

“I’m really proud that all four have thought about their decisions really hard, and have things they will do after netball that are exciting.”

Their replacements in the Diamonds squad of 17 for September’s Quad Series are international rookies Sarah Klau, Jessica Anstiss and Jamie-Lee Price, and veteran midcourter Renae Ingles.

Ingles’ out-of-the-blue reselection surprised everyone – including Ingles. She’d retired from netball and was living in Salt Lake City, where her basketballer husband Joe was playing in the NBA for the Utah Jazz. They returned home to Melbourne, with their two-year-old twins, three months ago.

“A few weeks ago I saw a photo of her playing state league netball, and I sent her a message saying ‘You look like you’re 16 again!’” says Alexander.  

“Then all of a sudden she was out on court for the Vixens. it was such a surprise. We’ve been delighted with what we’ve seen in her ability to shut down her opponent and pour on pressure, and her excellent through-court attack. She has a calmness and experience that we will probably need in this squad.”

Having Price in the Australian squad will be a two-way partnership, Alexander says. The daughter of Australian league legend and Warriors skipper Steve Price, Jamie-Lee spent more than half of her 22 years growing up and playing netball in New Zealand. And her new coach sees that as an advantage to the the team.

Price played for the Magic and was in the New Zealand under-21 side, before switching to green and gold at last year’s World Youth Cup in Botswana (which her former team-mates won).

Alexander has been taken by her doggedness, body strength, adaptability and competitiveness – and the fact she knows so much about New Zealand netball.

“It’s not the be-all-and-end-all, a lot of things change in two years,” she says. “But Jamie-Lee is working really hard on her one-on-one defence – the basis of our Australian way of defending – and we know she can also do space and area defence really well.

“So we’re looking forward to working with her in that area, and using her skills and talents to assist us. I think it’s going to be a great two-way partnership for years to come.”

Alexander reckons the Silver Ferns will again be a force to be reckoned with, come the world championships in Liverpool in a year’s time.

“Netball internationally is more competitive than it’s ever been. And that’s why change is a good thing,” she says.

“England winning has given the sport a push along, and we hope that’s maintained for a long time. We want our sport to grow globally.

“But we do love the special nature of our rivalry with the Silver Ferns. We were feeling for the athletes and coaches where there wasn’t a bronze medal secured on the Gold Coast. You feel for your closest ‘frenemies’, as we’ll call them.

“We know each other’s games, we’ve grown the game together. But we have to make sure we broaden it out because we can’t just have the two of us against each other all the time.”

New Zealand’s world ranking has now dropped to third in the world behind England, while Australia retain their No. 1 mantle. But Alexander wants her team to adopt “the mindset of being No. 2”.

“We can’t think we’re still No.1 because then we’ll think we don’t need to get better. But we have to – everyone’s nipping at our heels. We have work to do,” she says.

Australia will have their rematch with England in Newcastle, New South Wales, in the second round of the Quad Series, which also involves the Silver Ferns and South African Proteas.

The Ferns and Diamonds will meet in the final round, in a historic clash – the first-ever netball test played in the Queensland city of Townsville.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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