The wealth of midcourters at the top of New Zealand netball poses a different challenge for Dame Noeline Taurua in choosing her new Silver Ferns squad.
A Wellington waitress, who aspires to be a police detective, could be the true bolter in the new Silver Ferns line-up.
Maddy Gordon has her chance to capture a place in the Silver Ferns squad when she turns out for the favoured Pulse against the Tactix in this weekend’s ANZ Premiership grand final.
The 20-year-old midcourt dynamo has made such an impression at wing attack this year – a position she’s least familiar with – she should break into Dame Noeline Taurua’s squad of up to 18 players, to be named next Tuesday.
Speedy, shrewd and always on the move, she’s forged a great understanding with her shooters and proved she can master all three midcourt roles.
It’s obvious she’s open to learning. This is a girl who left home in Whangarei at 16 to finish high school in Auckland and further her netball career, then took a chance and moved to Wellington. Working part-time as a waitress, and putting her for aspirations for a police career on hold, Gordon has played an integral part in the champion Pulse side ever since.
She’s been fortunate to learn from Silver Ferns captain and shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio, who’s been extending her under game pressure, and the woman next to her at centre, Claire Kersten.
Kersten is in an equally strong contender to make the Silver Ferns squad, and therein lies an enviable problem: New Zealand has a wealth of midcourters at the upper echelon of the game all fighting for a spot in the Ferns.
There are the world champion middies – Laura Langman, Gina Crampton and Shannon Saunders – and those in the extended national squad – Kimiora Poi, Whitney Souness and Sam Winders.
Then there’s former Silver Ferns Erikana Pedersen, the Tactix wing attack who has bounced back excitingly from knee surgery; Peta Toeava, the magician in the middle for the Mystics; the experienced Grace Kara, who returned to the Stars after the birth of her son; and Kersten, who’s been an unfailing lynchpin in the Pulse attack. And you can’t overlook relative newcomers like Gordon, Tayla Earle and Mila Reuelu-Buchanan – all showing encouraging talent.
Silver Ferns assistant coach Deb Fuller, one of four selectors who will choose this Ferns squad and a development squad, accepts they have a “very, very hard job” in the middle of the court.
“The backbone of the teams we’ve seen are midcourters who can run the game out, and repeat that effort over and over again,” she says.
“They are continuously shuffling – there’s always someone charging ahead from one team, and then one from another. It’s fiercely competitive, but that’s what we want.
“Until now we haven’t had midcourters who were physically dominant. And it all comes down to Noels’ vision, being really clear about what she wants from each role; the midcourters know exactly what the expectations are.”
Gaps to fill
Taurua has made it clear she wants to broaden the Silver Ferns’ base over the next two years – having as many players as she can slip on the black dress.
There are gaps to be filled. Bailey Mes and Michaela Sokolich-Beatson are still recovering from surgeries, while their Mystics’ team-mate Phoenix Karaka announced yesterday she’s expecting a baby with her partner, All Black and Auckland Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu.
And there’s a big question mark hanging over Langman, our most experienced Silver Fern of all time on 163 tests. Will she return home from Australia to play this year? She’s looking as formidable as ever, leading her Sunshine Coast Lightning side by example in the early games of the Super Netball league.
“She hasn’t made her decision yet, but we’ll talk to her this weekend to see where she’s at,” Fuller says. “She’s still such a massive part of the Silver Ferns, but whatever she decides we will fully support her.”
If this pandemic allows, there will be up to eight games for the Silver Ferns this year – with a Cadbury series against the NZ Men, an All Stars team and the NZ U21s pencilled in for November, and then a four-test Constellation Cup against Australia in December.
That could mean chances for young players like Gordon, Grace Nweke and Aliyah Dunn. And the return of others who’ve worn the dress before – like Sulu Fitzpatrick, Kelly Jury and Temalisi Fakahokotau.
Taurua, Fuller and fellow selectors Jo Morrison and Adrianne Hayes will all meet in Invercargill for the Pulse-Tactix grand final on Sunday night. They will have no problem finding a seat in the empty stands under Level 2 restrictions.
Fuller is full of praise for the players who’ve turned out in this year’s interrupted season.
“Every athlete who has played in the ANZ Premiership has been a trailblazer for netball,” she says. “They knew the conditions Covid presented, and they did the work – there were girls running over farms, girls running on the stairs of their apartments – to prepare [in lockdown].
“In every team there’s been a leader who’s got the team prepared. We wanted the Silver Ferns in those teams to lead the way. Look at what Jane Watson has done for the Tactix – she has got the sense of belief in the team so strong. Then look across to Sulu Fitzpatrick, who’s been instrumental in the Mystics, working the depths of her squad.
“Noels says the cream always rises to the top. And that’s what we’re seeing.”
Short on shooters
After the retirement of Maria Folau, the crop of shooters at the very top is a little thinner this season.
While that’s the case at the Silver Ferns level, Taurua and Fuller aren’t concerned, but instead “super excited” by the young shooters at development squad level. Players like the Mystics’ Saviour Tui, and the Pulse’s Tiana Metuarau.
“Those girls have a lot of learning to do, but they’ve come into the game, made an impact and hit targets that are equal, if not better than, what the Silver Ferns have done,” Fuller says. “That’s exciting for the future of New Zealand netball.”
Maia Wilson, Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Ekenasio – who has to be the MVP of the ANZ Premiership – will hold their places in the squad.
But with Mes out for the rest of the season, still recovering from knee surgery, that leaves room for another shooter – or two.
The additions could be Grace Nweke and Aliyah Dunn.
Dunn already has four Silver Fern caps to her name from her 2018 debut, but has grown her game since then.
She wasn’t up to fitness standards for the Netball World Cup – a non-negotiable requirement. But like most of the players in the league this year, the 20-year-old looks sharper, and is still strong in the air and deadly under the hoop – the most accurate shooter in the regular season on 91 percent.
Even though she’s still just 18, Nweke handled the responsibility of senior shooter in the Mystics side this year. She shot the most goals – an average of 31 a game – and was 89 percent on the button (one percent behind Ferns goal shoot Maia Wilson). With her 1.93m height, she snapped up 44 rebounds.
This may be the exact right time to introduce Nweke to international netball, looking four years ahead. She would have been key to the NZ U21s’ defence of the World Youth Cup in Fiji next June had it not been postponed by the pandemic.
In strong defence
Don’t expect any bolters at the defensive end, but look for the return of Fitzpatrick, Fakahokotau and Jury.
Fitzpatrick has been a revelation again this year. The growth that started at the Pulse has continued now she’s back home at the Mystics. She led the statistics in rebounds and was third in deflections this season, but it’s also her calmness, composure and her connection with Karaka that has stood out.
After an 18-month recovery for shoulder surgery, Jury has been outstanding in her first season with the Pulse, topping the intercepts and using her height to best effect.
Fakahokotau, too, has made a strong return from a season out nursing her knee, and is almost back to her old explosive, vigorous self.
While that trio are most likely to join Watson, Katrina Rore and Karin Burger in the squad, the Magic’s Erena Mikaere could be a dark horse inclusion.
* The ANZ Premiership grand final between the Pulse and the Tactix in Invercargill will screen live on both Sky Sport 3 and Prime from 6.30pm on Sunday.