Do not get sore or sceptical if the Silver Ferns don’t win the first match of their revival era tomorrow. The odds are definitely not in their favour.
A new coach and new captain certainly give this broken netball side a whole lot of optimism and new impetus. But that doesn’t automatically convert to victory. Patience, and a little faith, is what’s required if you’re a Ferns fan right now.
You have to envisage the Silver Ferns restarting in Auckland where they left off on the Gold Coast – fourth at the Commonwealth Games; a team damaged by disharmony and disorder. The memory of those repeated pastings can’t be just shoved under the bench.
Straight away, the world No. 3 Ferns find themselves up against the English Roses – Commonwealth Games champions and currently the most experienced team in the world. They’ve been a tough proposition for New Zealand in recent times – over the past 12 months, they’ve got the better of the Ferns in three meetings out of five.
Noeline Taurua is the solution to the Ferns’ coaching woes that the nation was demanding. But she’s been in the job for exactly 15 days – and had her hands on the Silver Ferns squad for just four of them.
This, too, is her debut at the helm of a national side.
To her credit, the successful Taurua has never been one to gloss over a grim situation. She will be reminding the Ferns that they’re only as good as their last game. She’ll expect them to be a little rough around the edges.
And she will simply demand the best performance the Ferns can currently muster, whether that equates to a win or not.
Laura Langman will be the same. Voted in by her peers and New Zealand netball’s hierarchy as the new Ferns captain yesterday (consigning incumbent Katrina Grant to her deputy), she may sound like she has a Pollyanna view on life. But there are few netballers as driven and single-minded on court as Langman.
And no one – in sport in general – matches her incredible record of playing 141 tests consecutively, up until her contentious exit two years ago.
The New Zealand captaincy is not new to Langman – it’s a job she’s held twice before during her international career, stepping in whenever Casey Kopua was wounded. Behind closed stadium doors this week, even before her appointment, she’s been the commanding, sage voice on court for the Ferns.
Langman’s appointment should in no way reflect on Grant’s performance in the role for the past three seasons. She’s developed into a respected leader in that time, steering by example, and was openly willing to take her share of the responsibility for the Ferns’ downfall.
What Langman brings is a wise voice, a cool head and superlative skills. But perhaps her most valuable asset right now is her leadership in the midcourt. The last Silver Ferns line-up had Grant’s guidance at the back, Maria Folau’s proficiency in the front, but no experienced link in the middle.
The Ferns are still a little light on experience – a major fact in their downfall. There are three players who have no senior international netball to their name – shooter Aliyah Dunn, and midcourters Karin Burger and Elisapeta Toeava.
The loss of the audacious Temalisi Fakahokotau – the latest victim of the dreaded ACL injury – will leave a hole in the Ferns’ defence circle.
It’s impossible to replace like for like when it comes to Fakahokotau. There’s no one in netball quite like her. She was easily the most outstanding defender in this season’s ANZ Premiership – No.1 in rebounds, deflections and intercepts.
Her replacement in the side, Michaela Sokolich-Beatson, and the returning Jane Watson, bring their own sets of impressive skills to the defensive line-up, but neither have Fakahokotau’s strength in jangling the nerves of opposing shooters.
It won’t be long before the veteran Kopua and the rangy Kelly Jury are over their injuries, and back in contention to join Grant in the circle. It’s fair to expect a different-looking Ferns side in the Northern Quad Series early next year.
Langman’s return aside, one of the most exciting revelations in this series will be the debut of Mystics wing attack Toeava. A powerful impact player with instinct, insight and flair, she already has a natural connection with Folau.
She may not yet be ready for 60 minutes in the black dress, but Taurua will have the opportunity in this three-test series to introduce her three rookies to the rigours of international netball.
The English are almost the exact team who stole gold from Australia on the Gold Coast. Missing are defenders Eboni Beckford-Chambers and Beth Cobden, who’s also ruptured her ACL.
They’ve been in Auckland for over a week, electing to hold their training camp here.
The Silver Ferns will also have to be wary of the fast-closing South African Proteas when they meet in Tauranga on Tuesday. The work that coach Norma Plummer has done to develop this team over the last few years has been remarkable.
They were hard done by at the Commonwealth Games, losing three players to injury during their campaign, including shooter Lenize Potgieter.
The Proteas have lost three key midcourters to injury and illness this time, but Plummer sees it as an opportunity for newcomers to show what they’ve got less than a year out from the World Cup in Liverpool.
And they will play like demons against the defending champions Australia tomorrow – largely because of Plummer’s former role as Aussie coach. In their last Quad Series clash in London earlier this year, the two sides were level in the dying minutes, before Australia pulled away to win by four.
The Diamonds have almost as much to prove as the Silver Ferns. Not only because they dipped out on gold on their home soil five months ago, but because their team have undergone their own degree of change since then.
Three of their most experienced players – Laura Geitz, Susan Pettitt and Madi Robinson – retired just days before coach Lisa Alexander named her Quad squad.
To show their confidence in the coach, Netball Australia this week extended Alexander’s contract for an extra year, through to the end of 2020. That will be her 10th season, making Alexander Australia’s longest-serving head coach.
At the other extreme, Taurua’s tenure is just beginning. Softly, softly.