With the fourth and final game of the Constellation Cup this afternoon, the Silver Ferns are out to prove their consistency and put a bow on what has been an amazing 2019 season. Coach Noeline Taurua shares her thoughts on today’s game and the changing landscape of netball in New Zealand.
In ten years of the Constellation Cup, the Australian Diamonds have won nine times. The annual competition comprised of a series of three or four games between the rival nations has been somewhat poorly contested by a New Zealand side that’s been on a downward trajectory since we won the cup in 2012.
But after the Silver Ferns came from behind to take home the World Cup in July, this year’s Constellation cup promised a lot more from our national team. With the final game of the four-game series in Perth today, Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua is hoping the Ferns can show their newfound consistency against a storming Australian side.
“We’re 2-1 up at the moment and obviously this game is the decider and we have the so-called upper hand… We’ve done a lot of video, had a rest, but also kept the players boiling over.”
Being 2-1 up does put us at an advantage, but if Australia wins this fourth game, the series will go to them because of a better goal percentage. Both New Zealand wins have only been by one goal, and while Taurua is happy with the wins, she would like to see that margin increase.
“You never want to get down to those moments where you’re under pressure but I guess sometimes it does come down to that and that gives respect to the calibre of opposition and knowing Australia will never lie down. We’ve been the ones who, when we are close, have been able to close it off, which is a massive shift for us.”
And making that change is all about finding a balance between both ends of the court.
“In the second test our defence were sublime but we had a high error rate when we did have ball in hand, and on the third test we had great attack but probably didn’t turn over enough ball in the defence end, so it’s been a game of two halves and hopefully number four is about the combination.”
Taurua was brought in to the coaching role in mid-2018, with hopes the seasoned coach could turn around the Silver Ferns’ trajectory after a dismal commonwealth games. The pressure was on her to bring the side back to its early 2000s glory, and Taurua knew that responsibility was a lot to be taking on.
“Before I signed the contract I did a lot of thinking about what I could actually contribute to the Silver Ferns, the brand and the style of netball in New Zealand and I asked myself if I could make a difference.”
She wanted to make sure the team was one Kiwi sports fans would be proud to support.
“Our expectations as a country, although we are a small country, are very high for the Silver Ferns… If I didn’t feel that I could do the job or do the job justice then I wouldn’t have signed the contract in the first place. That was the starting point.” Her strategies to raise the profile of Netball in New Zealand are working. The first game of the Constellation Cup sold out Horncastle Arena in Christchurch, the second was played to the biggest crowd the Silver Ferns have ever gathered at Spark Arena in Auckland The other two games in Australia have also drawn massive numbers.
Taurua says this response has been humbling for her and the team.
“I feel there has been a shift with regards to the positivity around our game and style and our behaviours and the way that we play and treat each other, I feel like there’s more recognition of that. I feel that we are authentic and people connect with that.”
The trans-Tasman rivalry has helped drive this change, the quality of netball played by both teams making the game more exciting than ever for fans. “We talk about the rivalry, which is definitely out front, but underneath there’s so much influence that the Silver Ferns and the Diamonds have made to quality netball out there and the bigger picture, so it’s really exciting for all of us that we’re a part of that shift that’s happened in our sport.”
An ex-Silver Fern herself, Taurua’s well aware of how fast netball has evolved, on-court and off. When she was a player between 1993 and 1999, the sport hadn’t even been made professional yet. A lot has changed since in the 20 years since.
“When I first came in you got a pair of shoes or a daily allowance, and now it can be a full time job and career choice, so the majority are professional. Players are also furthering their education so that after netball they have something else to go to. The resources or access to resources have definitely improved, we’ve got a trainer, we have the physio, we have the doctor, we have video analysts, we’ve got all that support staff now that in my time we didn’t, so we can analyse the game and there’s really no excuse for the athletes to be performing at a higher level, physically.”
But the professional contracts only go so far. In the aftermath of the World Cup it was revealed that the Silver Ferns players weren’t contracted to get a bonus for their win. Goal shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio said at the time that the team wasn’t playing for a bonus. “We play for pride, pride in the fern and the black dress. That is what gets our passion burning… No one here plays for the money, no one ever has. How cool would it be to get a payout, but unfortunately that’s not the case.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suggested the Ferns’ sponsors might provide a winning bonus. “I think it should really just be a question for us, does that feel fair? Because it does tend to of course be those sports like netball where you don’t see that same attraction of sponsorship… You couldn’t have watched that game and say that those players weren’t deserving,” she said on The AM Show. ANZ and Sky Sport eventually came to the table to contribute to a fund for the players, but the amount of money in this fund wasn’t disclosed.
While recognition of the sport and players has improved since Taurua was on the court, she agrees there are still problem areas that need to be recognised. “It’s no different to anything in regards to employment or inequality across the board or in society. The things that we are doing on court and our ability to compete with Australia can only influence more broadcasting, more government funding because more people want to play the sport, because it’s a bit of a cycle. We can do our part but there needs to be a shift in society towards equality.”
Raising the profile of netball in New Zealand is one of the key ways Taurua sees for the team to make more money, and to do that, they need to keep performing with flare and consistency. “What’s happened in the past is that you might go through a pinnacle event, our senior players retire and then we go back down again. For three or four years we’re trying to scramble to compete with Australia and now we want to ride on the wave of the Netball World Cup and be dominant over the next two years.
“It’s a massive shift for us in regards to our own dominance and our own confidence in regards to how we play the game and the strategies and routine and the recipe is successful. We just have to keep going and being able to perform out there every game.”
And that consistency will be tested this afternoon when the Ferns get their chance to win back the Constellation Cup. Taurua says it’s a very different environment to the World Cup, and to win would prove that the new team strategies under her guidance are working.
“With the Constellation Cup, we’re doing four games against the same opposition so we need the ability to strategically come up with things a wee bit different. I think of it as moving chess pieces. You’ve got to build the foundation first.”