The Silver Ferns went from top of the world to rock bottom and back again in the 2010s. Four different coaches brought four very different approaches to the game over 10 years, and the team ended up writing the biggest comeback story of the decade. Here’s how.
At the start of this decade, the Silver Ferns were arguably the strongest they’d ever been. During the middle of the 2010s, the team had fallen miraculously from grace, and by the end, they were world champions once again. One of the most astounding decades for the game in New Zealand’s netball history has seen heartbreak and triumph for the team, its fans and the game, but how did we end up where we are now, with the Netball World Cup locked up in Netball New Zealand’s trophy cabinet?
After winning gold four years before, the Silver Ferns were geared up for fierce competition against rivals the Australian Diamonds at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The game of netball that eventuated when the two teams met in the finals was called, by the New Zealand Herald, “arguably the most incredible netball test ever”. Irene van Dyk was at the top of her game, rarely shooting under 90%, and the defensive power of Anna Harrison and Leana De Bruin kept the game exciting even when the ball was underneath the opposition goalpost. An intense double-overtime ending in the longest recorded official netball game (84 minutes) and a 66-64 win to the Ferns set the tone for how New Zealand’s netball fans expected the rest of the decade to continue.
In 2011, the Netball World Championship was contested in Singapore, where our team came second behind Australia. Coach Ruth Aitken had been with the Silver Ferns for the good part of 10 years when she retired later that same year. She’d coached them through one World Cup win and two Commonwealth gold medal performances, and told the Otago Daily Times she knew when it was time for her to go. “I just feel it’s the right time for another tack for the Ferns to keep growing and developing.” When she left, Aitken passed the reins to Waimarama Taumaunu.
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Under the guidance of veteran player Taumaunu, the team was consistent, but despite always fighting their way into finals, they failed to bring home any major wins. Her coaching tenure was short, from 2011 until 2015, and in that time the Silver Ferns couldn’t consistently break through the steady performances from the Australian national side. Silver medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2015 World Cup were disappointing after such a good run of wins in the decade before.
But despite the Ferns’ inability to shake up the solid world number one Diamonds side, this era was in no way the lowest point in the decade for the side.
When Taumaunu stepped down from the coaching role in 2015, the position was taken up by Janine Southby, whose tenure as coach was somewhat controversial when she gave up the post three years later. Under Southby, the Silver Ferns won the Quad Series title in 2017, but somewhat tragically, that’s probably not what she’ll be remembered for.
The team’s loss against Malawi in the pool stage of the 2018 Commonwealth Games was the first time the Ferns came away from that competition without a medal. It was one of the lowest points in the team’s history, with various articles pointing out the “ridicule” they faced after the “shambolic” performance.
Southby also coached the team over the 2017 Fast5 competition, which was one of only two years New Zealand hasn’t taken home the gold – in fact, they didn’t even place.
An independent investigation by Netball New Zealand and mounting pressure from netball enthusiasts after the Commonwealth performance culminated in Southby’s resignation, just two months out from the 2018 Quad Series and only a year from the 2019 World Cup. The review found that there was “fault with Ms Southby’s coaching style” and that the coaching team’s inexperience was costing the team.
It also noted that the Ferns had suffered because of the departure of some key senior players. Players like ex-Captain Casey Kopua, who retired in 2015, and Laura Langman, who was barred from playing in the Silver Ferns’ 2017 team after signing with an Australian trans-Tasman league side.
To return to the glory of their early 2010s team at this stage seemed like it would need a miracle. That would come in the form of a new coach: Gold Coast Lightning coach and Silver Ferns veteran Noeline Taurua. Nobody could have expected the turnaround that the team, with the return of two key veteran players, Casey Kopua and Laura Langman, would make by 2019.
As the nation’s hopes for the Cricket World Cup dissolved in front of our eyes, on the netball court the story was very different. One week after the devastating cricket final, while many Kiwis were still sobbing into their whites, netball fans were geared up to watch the Silver Ferns’ chance at redemption. The Netball World Cup final was played on July 21, and fans of the game were anxious to see whether Taurua had managed to fix the team in less than a year.
She had. And despite it being a one-goal win that was fought right until the very last seconds, it was a win all the same. The Silver Ferns miraculously found themselves at the top of the podium again. Even the All Blacks, watching from Auckland airport huddled around Sam Cane’s phone as the final whistle blew, let out whoops and cheers, with the usually expressionless Steve Hansen fist-pumping as the game ended.
While the rugby and cricket didn’t go New Zealand’s way this year, the Silver Ferns had one of the greatest comebacks of the decade. It’s a miraculous turnaround for a team that started the year fourth in the world rankings, and has set us up for a stellar next decade, just like Aitken did in the noughties. Now the focus has to be on making sure history doesn’t repeat.