Maria Folau admits she’s finally come to terms with her new role in the Silver Ferns attack.
For 12 years, Folau was New Zealand netball’s go-to goal attack, renowned for her swift and shrewd movement around the circle and her lethal long-bomb shots.
But since the Constellation Cup last October, Ferns coach Noeline Taurua has preferred to play her most experienced attacker at goal shoot. It’s a tactical move that appears to be paying dividends, and has given Folau “a new lease of life out on court”.
In the latest Quad Series in Liverpool, which ended with the Fern’s sole victory – a double extra-time thriller with South Africa – Folau finished up with an impressive 86 percent accuracy in her attempts on goal.
Happy with her consistency, (her accuracy has, at times, been erratic), Folau was even more buoyed by her burgeoning relationship with goal attack Ameliaranne Ekenasio.
But for a few minutes, when Ekenasio had to tend to a nosebleed, the pair worked together for the entire series – creating a fast-moving shooting circle where both were confident to put up long-range shots, and slotting them.
With Ekenasio showing a new maturity and precision, this is shaping up to be the No 1 shooting combination in the Silver Ferns’ arsenal for the World Cup in Liverpool come July.
But 31-year-old Folau admits it’s been a challenge for her, adapting to a new position – a relocation she initially wasn’t sure of.
“I was afraid of it to start with,” she says. “Goal shoot is a position where your timing must be impeccable. You’re the last port of call. When the ball comes down, it’s your job to be available, work with your goal attack to get the ball in a shooting position and then be the king-pin underneath the hoop.
“Part of me was like, ‘Hmm, but at goal attack, you’re the playmaker, and you decide whether to shoot or not’. But at goal shoot, that’s all you. I can’t run around like a headless chook, like I did at goal attack, and that’s been a huge challenge for me.
“But I’ve grown to enjoy it. And I am going to love it.”
It was a transition that needed to happen. Over time, Folau’s rival defenders had figured out how to shut her down. You only need to look back to Irene van Dyk, who was also forced to change up her game – and that led to her unrivalled longevity in international netball.
After the Silver Ferns beat Australia in Hamilton late last year, and Folau landed 40 of her 41 shots at goal shoot, Diamonds captain Caitlin Bassett admitted her team needed to find a way to get inside Folau’s head and erode her confidence.
No doubt the world champion Diamonds – and the other top netball nations – will keep working on that strategy over the next six months leading into the World Cup, as Folau’s self-assurance grows.
Folau puts her latest evolution down to working with Taurua again. They spent two seasons together at the Magic – where Taurua boldly switched Folau to goal shoot and van Dyk to goal attack during their 2008 rise to finalists in the inaugural ANZ Championship.
“I really relish the opportunity to be under Noel’s guidance again,” says Folau. “She has taught me so much in the short time that she’s been in the Ferns environment. She was a goal attack in her day, so she knows exactly what it’s like in the circle at international level.
“For the coach to hand me the GS bib to start gives me huge confidence. But I also say to myself: ‘Righto Maria, here’s another string to add to your bow. Keep learning, keep striving, keep growing. And see where to from here’.”
As to what happens next with her goal shoot foray, Folau isn’t entirely sure. She’s returned home to Sydney, and next month joins her new team, the Adelaide Thunderbirds. But she has no idea where coach Tania Obst will choose to play her in the Super Netball league.
“I’ve only been in the environment once, in December. When we come together in February, when all the internationals get together for the first time, we will see what Tania has in store for me,” Folau says.
The other two shooters in the Thunderbirds, Cody Lange and Sasha Glasgow, are relative youngsters.
Taurua, who now returns to her Sunshine Coast Lightning side, will keep a close eye on Folau, as well as the handful of other New Zealand shooters in contention for the final 12 for Liverpool. She’s made it clear that players like Te Paea Selby-Rickit, dropped from the Ferns for this tour, could still force their way into the side with strong, sustained performances in the ANZ Premiership, starting next month.
The coach also told Radio Sport this week she was pleased with the growth of the Folau-Ekenasio pairing, especially in the pressure cooker of overtime.
“I think we have… in the past, had issues around percentages at goal, and also the combination of that unit,” she said. “After every game they improved.
“They showed once again their value as individuals by putting the ball into the hoop. As a combination they are starting to grow, and I’m pleased with that aspect of our game.”
Folau is even louder in singing the praises of Ekenasio – who has 25 caps to Folau’s 138 – and who “really stepped up” for the UK series.
“She’s a great person, who’s very generous and kind to others. When she’s on court, she’s super accurate. I love the fact that she just turns and shoots,” she says.
“I’m immensely proud of her work ethic and how she’s performed on court – especially in those pressure moments. It’s a huge step forward. If I get named in the final 12, I’d love to play with Meels again.”
Ekenasio, who returned to netball last season after the birth of her son, also finished the series with an 86 percent shooting average, and scored the buzzer-beating equaliser to go into extra time with the markedly-improved Proteas.
But it was Folau who sunk the winner – bringing back memories of her similar heroics in the 2010 Commonwealth Games final against Australia.
“I was thinking, ‘Is this really happening again? Man I’m way too old for this’!” she laughs. “But that pressure was invaluable for us. It was an opportunity that very rarely arises, which you just can’t replicate in training.
“Not just that game, but the whole series, has been immense for us.”
The Silver Ferns came out of the Quad Series with just one win from three tests, although they put on a strong show against Australia losing by thee. But Folau saw the series as a victory in the bigger picture, as the team continues to reform after the all-time low of last year’s Commonwealth Games.
“Yes we’ve had a few losses, but within those there have been huge learnings. I believe in what Noels and Debbie [Fuller, the Ferns’ assistant coach] are doing, the pathway they’re trying to build to move our team forward,” Folau says.
“It’s awesome to see what we’ve been doing in training executed out on court. In pressure moments we’ve stuck to our game plan. I feel we played some blimmin’ awesome patches of netball – with some stupid stuff as well. But the pros definitely outweigh the cons.
“As long as we are continually growing and getting better, for ourselves and our team, come World Cup, we’ll be fizzing.”