It’s been six years since the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship competition split and New Zealand and Australia went their separate ways.
During the league’s nine years, only one New Zealand team won the title (the Magic in 2012), and in that time, Australia won two World Cups and the two nations shared one Commonwealth Games title each.
Since 2017, the major titles have been shared – one Netball World Cup win for New Zealand and one Games gold for Australia. England won the other on the Gold Coast in 2018.
So who did the split benefit most? And who will have the advantage another five or 10 years down the line?
Netball New Zealand decided to keep their competition local, with the ANZ Premiership allowing one import per franchise. These often aren’t used – there were just two import players in this year’s premiership. Teams consistently bring in emerging players from their feeder league – the National Netball League – to support young Kiwi netballers.
Australia went in the opposite direction, determined to develop Suncorp Super Netball into the world’s top league, every team sprinkled with international superstars – bar players from one country.
Netball NZ’s harsh stance banning players from participating in Suncorp made headlines when the most-capped Silver Fern, Laura Langman, was ineligible to play for the Ferns after she chose to develop her career with the Sunshine Coast Lightning.
Restrictions were then slightly loosened, with certain players granted exemptions (Langman and fellow Ferns centurions Leana de Bruin and Maria Folau), but most Kiwi stars were left to battle it out against each other.
After the 2018 Commonwealth Games, a lot of fingers were pointed trying to find the reason the Ferns missed out on a medal for the first time. Was it selection, fitness, coaching, or was the lack of playing time against international calibre players to blame?
In came a new coach, and under her reign, new fitness standards that impacted selection. But the Kiwis stuck to their guns with their domestic competition and Dame Noeline Taurua led the Ferns to World Cup victory in 2019.
Since then, Covid has disrupted international netball, so the Silver Ferns haven’t had as many opportunities to face international opponents as in previous cycles. Since losing to Jamaica at the 2018 Games, the Ferns only faced the Sunshine Girls twice – the Ferns coming out on top by 11 and 26 goals in the 2020 Quad Series.
Fast forward to the 2022 Commonwealth Games, where after beating Australia by just two goals in pool play, Jamaica smashed New Zealand by 14 in the semifinal to make the gold medal match for the first time in Games history.
The Ferns struggled early against the Sunshine Girls, sitting at half-time with a 16-goal deficit. The more they played, the more they adjusted to the Caribbean style of play and physicality, even winning the final quarter by one.
In the gold medal match, Australia bounced back to beat Jamaica 55-51. It was the Diamonds’ first major title in seven years – and their first since the dissolution of the ANZ Championship.
It begs the question – who is benefiting most from the Suncorp Super League?
It’s hard to criticise those wearing gold medals, but are Australia doing enough to support the next wave of talent coming through? When young Fever goal attacks are used as a second feeder to towering Jamaican goal shoot Jhaniele Fowler, or defenders sitting on the bench as fellow Jamaicans Shamera Sterling and Latanya Wilson dominate the Thunderbirds’ defensive circle?
Some of the stars of the Silver Ferns were the young ones – 20-year-old Grace Nweke a particular standout, along with Kate Heffernan making her Ferns debut and being coach Taurua’s number one choice for the wing defence bib, proof of the talent developing back home.
But it took the Silver Ferns most of the Games competition to find their perfect seven to challenge at international level, and they had no answers for Jamaica, who they hadn’t seen in over two years.
A New Zealand-only competition is a great idea, and is sure to continue to allow our athletes to grow and thrive. But the Ferns need to be consistently playing international opponents to gain experience and knowledge of how to play against different styles of netball – especially the man-on-man Aussie defence and the aerial Caribbean flair.
But what about England? The reigning Commonwealth champs were ready to defend on home soil, but were demoted to fourth after a loss to Australia in the semifinals, then falling to New Zealand in the bronze medal match.
England have had one of the most consistent line-ups over the past few years, with their Commonwealth Games team having almost 900 caps of experience between them. The majority of their players have had experience in the Australian league, too, as well as their home Vitality Netball Superleague.
But their finish off the podium also demoted them to fourth in the most recent world rankings, and with a few veterans retiring this year, the Roses have a lot to do to remain competitive with the top nations.
Jamaica were without Romelda Aiken-George (who welcomed her first child earlier this month). She’s suited up for the Queensland Firebirds every year since 2008 before becoming pregnant. Even so, six of their 12-strong side have played in the Suncorp league.
Several nations are represented in the Australian competition, including Uganda, who finished an impressive fifth at the Commonwealth Games, and automatically qualify for the 2023 Netball World Cup. Shooting stars Proscovia Peace and Mary Cholhok play in Australia and England respectively, and are a big contribution to Uganda’s current success.
Nations like Malawi, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago – who all have representatives in Suncorp – continue to challenge at the top level.
Members of the Fiji Pearls played alongside the Sunshine Coast Lightning team in a Fast5 exhibition match.
It was disappointing to see no Pacific Island nations qualifying for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, and the lack of game time they’ve had among their Pacific neighbours in the past few years.
The Fiji Pearls recently played a Fast5 exhibition match against representatives from Suncorp, but have only played the Ferns twice in the past seven years. With strong players and exciting talent across the Pacific, should New Zealand do more to help these nations grow?
The NNL could involve a Moana Pasifika team like Super Rugby, or support players by encouraging and allowing athletes from Fiji, the Cook Islands and Samoa to play in New Zealand.
While the development of other netball nations is good for the game, Kiwis must have their sights firmly set on a World Cup defence next year.
The Ferns have scheduled series against Jamaica and Australia later this year, and will likely play a Quad Series early next year involving England and South Africa too.
There’s plenty of young talent waiting in the wings – Tiana Metuarau, Maddy Gordon and Elle Temu sure to make their mark in the black dress in the next few years, while Nweke will no doubt be a mainstay for the Ferns in years to come.
Only time will tell how the ANZ Premiership has impacted New Zealand’s chances to compete on a global scale, but all Kiwi netball fans know to trust in Dame Noels and have faith in a system that prioritises developing future Silver Ferns.