It hasn’t been the start to 2022 the Silver Ferns wanted, but star midcourter Sam Winders reckons her team will take plenty from the northern Quad Series – with the Commonwealth Games squarely on their horizon.
The Silver Ferns won’t be using Covid as an excuse.
Even with a limited build-up to the four-game Quad Series in the UK this week, the Ferns came in prepared.
Experienced midcourter and Silver Ferns Player of the Year, Sam Winders, says the team knew what to expect in England. Despite Omicron reaching its peak in the UK and the effects the pandemic have had on the Ferns’ preparation, Winders believes the team did everything they could to be ready to take on three of their greatest rivals.
So far, they’ve won just one game – an 11-goal win over South Africa this morning after losses to Australia and England in the pool stages – and they face the Proteas again tomorrow to determine third and fourth places. But Winders stresses with just under 200 days till the Commonwealth Games, the Ferns will take home more from these clashes than simply the final score.
“Now’s the best time to be figuring things out in the build-up to the pinnacle event in six months’ time. There’s so much that’s going to come out of this, lots of learning, but hopefully lots of positives too,” she says.
Winders jokes there’s no shopping or sightseeing on this northern tour, but one of the perks of the strict Covid protocols is players getting their own hotel rooms.
The Ferns days are limited to two court sessions and time in the hotel gym, but they also have video analysis, statistics and plenty of other resources available to them while in their bubble.
“Besides the English team, the two other teams are in the same boat as us,” Winders says.
Regardless of the final outcome in London, the Quad Series acts as perfect preparation for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in July.
The Games could have very similar Covid protocols to what the team are experiencing in London right now. And Australia and England are again shaping up to be the Silver Ferns’ toughest competition in Birmingham, with England the reigning champs and playing on home soil.
In their first international match of the year, the Ferns were beaten comprehensively by the Australian Diamonds, never holding the lead in the 14-goal defeat. There were more promising signs in their game against the England Roses, but ultimately the Ferns fell short again, letting an eight-goal lead slip and losing 49-46.
A full court performance saw the Ferns record a comfortable 54-43 win over South Africa, but the side let momentum slip in the final quarter, up by 19 at one point in the third stanza.
Ferns fans may be a bit worried by the New Zealand performances on court, but getting wins on the board wasn’t the only goal for the current World Cup holders.
“We’ve got a lot of other objectives we’re working towards as a team,” Winders says. “Things like combinations, getting people working as a unit, nailing some of the structures we’ve been working on. And getting better clarity on what it looks like to put these out under pressure and against some of the best teams in the world.”
Going into the series, the Ferns had 365 caps of international experience between the 14 touring players, while the Roses had 912 – even after the withdrawal of 110-cap veteran Jo Harten after a positive Covid test.
Young Ferns shooters Grace Nweke and Tiana Metuarau have both spent valuable minutes up against quality international defence, and coach Dame Noeline Taurua has rotated her defenders throughout the series to trial combinations.
The Ferns selectors have a monumental job ahead of them, with many players standing up in the Quad Series despite being on the losing end. And the side may welcome some experienced heads back before heading to Birmingham.
Vice captain Jane Watson won’t be present, with the defender expecting her first child in May. But two other mums could be back – seasoned veteran Katrina Rore, on 137 caps, may put her hand up after returning from having her first baby, along with captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio in the shooting circle. Ekenasio welcomed her second child last year and was a stand-out for the winning Ferns side at the World Cup; her leadership has been missed in her time away from the court.
Their potential return would be a major boost for the Ferns, and would also help with combinations – the duo will team up at the Magic in this year’s ANZ Premiership alongside Winders and fellow Ferns midcourter Claire Kersten.
Winders was the bright spark in the Magic last year, captaining the side that only managed one win from 15 games – but 2022 brings a largely new-look side.
She’s looking forward to building on the connections from an ultimately forgettable season, as well as forging new relationships with incoming players.
“There’s some really exciting young players in the mix so there’s heaps to look forward to,” she says. “I’m just excited to see what we can bring, hopefully something a bit different, tapping back into that winning Magic history.”
Always the optimist, Winders can see the positives out of the tough season.
“It’s not the first time obviously that I’ve been part of an unsuccessful – on the scoreboard – kind of team, but there’s so much other stuff that comes out of the season whether you’re winning or losing,” she says.
“For me, it’s about fronting up each week, working on my game, working on getting better and trying to contribute to what I can in whatever team I’m in.”
Overlooked for the 2019 Netball World Cup, Winders has stood out at both centre and wing defence ever since. One of just three players to feature in all seven internationals last year, her consistency and on-court passion have helped make her a solid option in the midcourt, and led to her being named Silver Ferns Player of the Year in 2021
When asked if the accolade changed anything for her, Winders laughs.
“Definitely not,” she says. “It’s always nice when there’s an awards nights, but netball is a team sport…I can only do it because of my mates around me.
“That’s what I really like about our culture – it’s a team-first kind of culture and you have the freedom to be yourself within that. That’s what makes our team so great. But at the end of the day, what are you bringing and what are you giving to allow the team to thrive?”
Someone who always brings a down-to-earth approach to her netball life, this series has emphasised that for Winders.
New mums and Ferns returnees, Phoenix Karaka and Kayla Johnson have brought their babies with them to the UK, giving the Ferns ‘aunty duty’ on tour.
“We love it, it’s so much fun, it just adds something completely different,” Winders says.
“It changes your perspective a little bit. Netball’s really awesome – it’s what we do and it’s such a big part of our lives – but obviously it’s not everything.”
“When we’re on tour and we’re in this netball bubble, you can get really goggles on…having a little human running around as well makes you be like ‘oh yep there’s all that happening too’.”
The Silver Ferns will play South Africa for third on Thursday morning, with Australia and England qualifying for the final.