Noeline Taurua’s promise to bring her outside-the-box approach to coaching the Silver Ferns will see new twists when the team next come together.
Taurua wants to run the Silver Ferns camp in Auckland in early December as a simulation of next year’s Netball World Cup in Liverpool – with back-to-back games across the five days.
She will also widen the net to involve players from the Silver Ferns development squad. Players like the tallest shooters in the country, Ellie Bird and Jen O’Connell, who won’t be there just to make up numbers – the camp will double as a trial.
The new Ferns coach has made it clear there are “gaps in all areas of the court”, and the selection door is open to players who have a point of difference.
She’s already laid down a challenge to the current Silver Ferns – to return to her in six weeks’ time fitter, more consistent and fully committed to the goal of winning the World Cup.
It’s also the first time that the coaches of all six ANZ Premiership franchises have been invited to also take part in the pre-Christmas camp. It’s a strategy to ensure everyone plays their part in the Silver Ferns’ regeneration.
“We’ve already been working behind the scenes with the franchises to make sure there is support for the players. But this needs to be a win-win situation – not an edict from the top,” Taurua says.
“If we have athletes who are professional, fit and well-conditioned, that’s also going to lift the standard of the ANZ Premiership – which needs to happen. Especially since everyone’s going on about the ANZ Premiership not being as competitive as [Australia’s] Suncorp SuperNetball.
“We can’t save the world, but there’s a lot we can do to raise the standard of netball in New Zealand. I’ve really enjoyed that, right from day one, everyone has acknowledged their role in making this happen for the Silver Ferns. It’s going to take a lot of people to make that happen. And so far, so good.”
Back at home in Birtinya, on the Sunshine Coast, Taurua has had time to reflect on the eight weeks that she’s been the Silver Ferns coach; to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of her players and the next step in their path towards the World Cup.
“I wasn’t too sure where the team was, leading into the Quad Series and Constellation Cup but, like everyone else, I had a perception of where they should be,” she says. “That doesn’t always marry up with reality.
“I had to see the players tested in real time against the best. Now I understand what we have to do.”
With the Ferns now enjoying their annual leave, the next six weeks will be a testing time, Taurua says. “Even though they’re on a break, it’s now time for them to take responsibility, be accountable, and come back in the best possible condition they can be.
“I want to see fitter players, and from that I’ll get an understanding of the players who want to be there, and are ready to be there.” She also wants to see players step up and own their roles on court. “I want shooters who can shoot.”
From now until the World Cup in July, the Silver Ferns will be assessed at regular stages. There will be no passengers.
“It will naturally weed out those who aren’t ready or can’t commit fully to what’s required. That’s a positive thing. You’ve got to fight for your place, so that we’re very competitive,” Taurua says.
Under Taurua’s guidance, the Silver Ferns have played seven tests, winning just two. There were moments when Taurua saw the “beautiful netball” she knows the Ferns are capable of. But, for the most part, they still weren’t up to scratch.
“The disappointing fact for me was not being able to stamp our mark on that last game against Australia,” she says. In that fourth test, which the Ferns lost by 11, they were comprehensively outplayed throughout the court.
“They are our measuring stick, and we’ve only got one more shot at them before the world champs.” That one shot will be at the Northern Quad Series in Liverpool in January.
Taurua saw incremental improvements each time the Silver Ferns took the court, and while their 11-goal victory over the Australian Diamonds in the third test was “fantastic”, the ability to back up that win with another was more important in the bigger picture.
“Australia were phenomenal in that last game – it was the best game I’d seen them play in both series,” she says. “And when I looked at the quality of our game, we weren’t up to par. It exposed gaps that showed what our realistic landscape is. It showed that we aren’t there yet, and we have so much more work to do.”
Part of the work needed is mental. The Ferns need to believe that their triumph over the world champion Diamonds in Hamilton – their first in 10 tests – wasn’t an aberration.
“Man, when we are in-tune, we play this beautiful brand of netball that’s amazing to watch,” Taurua says. “We need to have belief and confidence in ourselves that we are amazing players who can foot it with anyone.”
But the biggest red flag waving during the Constellation Cup was a lack of fitness in a number of the Ferns. Taurua has asked her players to work on their strength and conditioning over their six-week leave.
“Whatever they’re doing now is off their own bat. But I want to level the playing field so we aren’t always talking about conditioning; so we can work on all the other things we need to be better netballers,” she says.
Fifteen Silver Ferns were involved in the Quad Series and Constellation Cup, and Taurua felt they all got good court time, bar debutant midcourter Erikana Pedersen, who played just three minutes in the third test.
“The players now know exactly where they’ve been exposed, or where their strengths lie,” Taurua says. “All have identified what areas they need to work on, and they’re bang-on with those.”
Taurua has always stressed that she’s building this team in stages. She sees the next step as determining where players fit into the team. There were some, she says, who couldn’t do their job on court at times, which overloaded others, impacting on the team strategy.
“I need players who can do their own job. At the moment, there’s a lot of background noise around each person, why they can and can’t do their job. We’ll focus on that between now and January,” she says.
One player who really impressed Taurua over both series was veteran shooter Maria Folau, who starred in the Ferns’ win over the Diamonds, shooting 40 from 41 at goal shoot.
“Apart from the first game against England, her shooting percentages were between 80 and 90 percent consistently, and that’s the level I feel is required,” Taurua says. “For a 31-year-old with so much international experience to change the different lines of her game is actually amazing.
“I thought her overall intention, wanting to be better and put quality out there, was fantastic in a short space of time. She provided us with the backbone, and now we’re looking at putting in the pieces around her.”
Folau’s shooting partners were too often found wanting, and Taurua expects them to work on their conditioning, positioning and re-examining their technique. She also wants to see whether Ameliaranne Ekenasio and Bailey Mes can fit back into the side.
“The game is won by putting the ball through the hoop. We’ve simply got to have shooters who can shoot,” she says.
Spearheaded by Jane Watson and Katrina Grant, the Ferns defence was imposing, but failed to stamp any dominance in the final test.
Former captain Casey Kopua and the 1.92m goal keep Kelly Jury are both clear of their injuries and can attend the pre-Christmas camp – and will be up for selection for the Northern Quad Series. Taurua is excited by what they might bring to the squad.
“When we make changes there needs to be a point of difference, someone who can make an impact. There are gaps in all areas of the court – which provides opportunity for people to put their hands up. The door is definitely not closed,” she says.
For Taurua, this assignment – laden with public expectation – is nothing out of the ordinary.
“It’s the same job I always do, but with a different landscape,” she says. Next week she’ll be back in her other job, coaching the champion Sunshine Coast Lightning for a third season.
“The [Silver Ferns] landscape is a wee bit different, I’m finding as we go along. It’s really important that I am being patient, making sure I’m open, and that I’m clear in my communication,” she says.
“We have a limited time frame, but that’s the exciting thing – I feel there’s so much more we can do if we’re smart and put all the pieces together right.”
Taurua has been heartened by her players’ intent and willingness to be better. “That was apparent right from the start. Even with all the stuff we changed behind the scenes, they’re giving it a go,” she says.
“These players now know what the expectation is, and that’s the test they have ahead of them – to be consistent at the level that’s required day after day after day. Only the toughest will survive.”