Can the South African Proteas repeat the shock victory of the Springboks, and upset the vexed Silver Ferns? Their legendary coach Norma Plummer would like to think so, while holding the utmost respect for the Ferns’ new coach, Noeline Taurua.  

Norma Plummer leaned against the wall of a back corridor in Auckland’s Spark Arena; her bejewelled hands – with their bright pink fingernails – clasped together.

She was weary, feeling the effects of the flu she’d been battling during her week in New Zealand. The coach’s mood was also dampened by her South African Proteas’ 17-goal drubbing from her old side, the Australian Diamonds.

Her team were plagued by “anxiousness” in the opening game of the Quad Series, she explained; guilty of throwing too many errant passes into the eager hands of the world’s No.1 side.

Half an hour later, the Silver Ferns would take the same court against the latest pretenders to the world netball crown – Commonwealth Games champions, the English Roses. Waiting were 5000 screaming home-team supporters, confident of seeing the Ferns turn their fortunes around.

Plummer, a formidable national coach who’s had a hate-to-love relationship with New Zealand fans over the last 15 years, perked up as she spoke of her expectations of Noeline Taurua, who was about to make her debut as coach of the troubled Ferns.

“I have no doubt that Noeline can pull this team back very quickly… very quickly. I’m under no illusion that she’s not going to nail it,” she said.

“As soon as New Zealand announced her as coach, expectations went up tenfold. She comes over to Australia, and wins two [SuperNetball] grand finals in a row… I mean, seriously you couldn’t have gone with anyone else. And she’s a New Zealander, that’s the other thing. I have no doubt she’ll do a good job.”

Fast forward 18 hours, and Plummer is getting ready to board a bus to Tauranga with the Proteas. They’ve been buoyed by their fellow countrymen’s victory over the All Blacks the night before, even though, Plummer says, not many of them watched the game. “You might be surprised that not a lot of them follow [rugby].”

Now the Proteas, with a new ranking of fifth in the world, will attempt to stage a similar upset over New Zealand, the world No. 3 netball team, tomorrow night.

But Plummer, renowned as one of the canniest coaches in the game, isn’t fooled into thinking the Silver Ferns will be easy-beats, despite their record 13-goal loss to the English on Saturday. Her opinion of Taurua, and her ability to rebuild the New Zealand side, hasn’t changed.

“First of all, you’ve got to give Noeline a bit of time,” the 73-year-old Plummer says. “They’ve come off a pretty harrowing experience, so it’s not easy finding connections again. I think they’ve just got to keep working at it.

“I thought they were contesting, but they were similar to us in just throwing the ball away. These are things they can work on, just like we have to.”

She was surprised at how the Fern’s trio of shooters – Maria Folau, Ameliaranne Wells and Te Paea Selby Rickit – were all off their game, scoring a lowly 69 percent of their collective attempts at goal.

“Their shooting is normally an area that’s pretty good,” Plummer reflected. “But once again it’s about getting all the connections right. Once connections come, so does confidence. That’s the main thing to get a team going.”

Taurua would most likely agree wholeheartedly with Plummer. Although the 52-39 scoreline had taken her by surprise (“I’ve never seen a scoreboard like that for a long time in my life”), Taurua approached a post match inquisition with both frankness and positivity. “Hit me with it!” she encouraged the journalists in the room.

She was happy with a lot of things, she said. She loved the heart and determination the Ferns showed, and the way they rallied back in the second quarter, closing down a six-goal difference to one at halftime. “I loved the hustle, and I loved the fight,” she said.

But when they “capitulated” in the final 15 minutes, it was because players hadn’t stuck to their roles. They’d “opted out or got tired”, which impacted on the team.

She paid kudos to the Ferns defence, in particular the circle pairing of Katrina Grant and Jane Watson, up against a classy English attack (Helen Housby’s 90 percent shooting was a highlight of the game).

But the Ferns’ shooting crisis – both in accuracy and the ability to handle the physicality – was an area that demanded work.

“Hey it’s a start for us,” Taurua said. “We’re on the right track as to what we talked about and what we started at our training; we’ve just got to keep going.”

She’ll have another couple of days to get to know her team – adding to the five she had before the first test.

So does Plummer feel the time is right for South Africa to take a win off the Silver Ferns, something they’ve done just once before, back in 1995?

“We never go out there thinking we can’t win it,” she says. “We’re competitive but, tactically, it’s about our players being disciplined enough to execute it. That’s an area that sometimes lets us down.

“Our biggest aim is to make the top four in next year’s world champs. A win for us over any of these top three teams would be a bonus.”

The Proteas were just five goals adrift of the Silver Ferns when they last met in January, but since then, they’ve lost three of their midcourters. The biggest blow was dealt to veteran Erin Burger – the MVP of the 2011 World Cup – struck down by an infection that has damaged a heart muscle. “It was only picked because she had the GPS on – her heart rate was over the moon,” Plummer says.

There’s no doubt the last four years with Plummer in charge – aided by former Diamonds shooter Nicole Cusack – have boosted the Proteas to become true top four contenders. Earlier this decade, the Silver Ferns would regularly thrash them by 30-40 goals.

Earlier this month, Plummer revealed in a column for Australian website PlayersVoice how a casual comment to a reporter back in 2004, that the Silver Ferns team of the time were “a bunch of scrubbers”, had her reviled in New Zealand for quite a while. “But I think that’s changed over time, and they might just like me a little bit now,” she wrote.

She still loves coaching, she says, but can’t commit the same time to the South African side she did with the Diamonds.

“I couldn’t live over there, and they couldn’t afford to pay me to be fulltime,” she says. “So we have to be able to go in and out. That’s not ideal, but we’ve had success doing it.

“At my time of life, I don’t want to live away from home. I had 20 years at the AIS, but I’ve done up my house [in Melbourne], and I’m enjoying it.

“Sometimes I miss coaching, but then I’ll do a three-week stint with the team, and I’m happy to go home again. Just sit on the couch and not worry about it.”

But no one in their right mind would dare to think Norma Plummer was in this half-heartedly.

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

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