Australia has won its seventh Quad Series title, defeating the New Zealand Silver Ferns by six goals, 56-50, in the final of the 2023 tournament held in Cape Town.
The old trans-Tasman foes have always produced a generally tight contest, demonstrated by the fact that heading into this match, 80 of their 162 previous meetings had been decided by just five goals or less.
However, even though their battles over the past 12-24 months have still been close, they’ve somewhat lacked the level of intensity and spectacle we’ve come to expect from this rivalry in year’s gone by.
Cue the 2023 Quad Series — which acts as the final chance for Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa to test their team capabilities ahead of the upcoming World Cup — and the deciding match gave fans everything they needed to prepare themselves for the big year ahead.
The sheer tenacity and physicality shown by the Diamonds and Silver Ferns means this match will likely be remembered amongst some of the all-time classics, with a bit of umpire drama sprinkled in to give it some extra spice.
From the first whistle New Zealand showed their fight, turning ball straight back over to convert their opening centre pass after they’d lost possession when 193cm-tall target Grace Nweke stepped out of court.
Australia answered through Steph Wood and the one-for-one pattern continued for the majority of the first quarter, reading 11-10 on the scoreboard New Zealand’s way before the deadlock was broken.
The mistake came from Wood in the ninth minute, who was called for a foot drag within Australia’s goal third, gifting New Zealand a chance to slot two in a row and back up with a third straight goal on their next centre pass.
Before the end of the quarter, the kiwis had pushed their lead out to four thanks to a key deflection from Kate Heffernan, seeing them head into the first break full of confidence, 19-15.
For much of that quarter Diamonds defensive duo Sarah Klau and Courtney Bruce struggled to shut Nweke down, after the 20-year-old bounced back from her early mishap to score 16 goals.
With a quick-release on the feed the Silver Ferns were able to find Nweke in front of the post time and time again, as goal attack Ameliaranne Ekenasio played more of a supporting role and wing attack Gina Crampton sent the ball in from as early as a metre off circle edge.
In the break, Diamonds assistant coach Anita Keelan was overheard telling Klau and Bruce to come off the body of Nweke, and to get moving in order to create some doubt on that feed.
Heading out for the second quarter, the Aussie pair continued to toil away, double-tagging Nweke as much as possible and sure enough, the scoreboard started to turn.
Klau must have hit the deck at least three times in her commitment to marking the shooter throughout this period, but her repeated efforts paid off, restricting Nweke to six less goals than the first quarter while forcing Ekenasio to shoulder more of the work load.
Despite the fact the Diamonds won that second quarter (15-12) to trail by just one goal at half-time, 31-30, pundits were calling for coach Stacey Marinkovich to make defensive changes.
What they had perhaps overlooked in their assessment here was the momentum switch that had been influenced by Klau and Bruce.
Yes, they may not have had as many intercepts or deflections than we’re used to seeing from them, but their building of pressure on the Silver Ferns attack saw ball fall into the Diamonds’ lap in other ways.
By remaining strong in defence, the kiwis were forced to work a little bit harder to get to post and this saw Ash Brazill pick up an intercept on circle edge, as well as Nweke fall out of court trying to take a wayward feed that led to an Australian baseline throw-in.
Marinkovich had certainly noticed these efforts though and made no changes in the break, or throughout the rest of the match for that matter, as she insisted her players work it out themselves on court.
In fact, at one point commentator Jenny Woods referred to the final as a “game of chess” on the host broadcast, which perfectly summed up the coaching battle between Marinkovich and Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua.
Taurua is known as one of, if not the best, tactically minded coaches in the business, who is always thinking 10 steps ahead when it comes to the Netball World Cup.
The longer both coaches held off making substitutions, the more it felt like a personal endeavour to see which one of them would crack first and concede a weakness in their starting seven.
Funny enough, it was New Zealand the pundits were calling for a defensive change by the end of the third quarter, after the Aussies had carried on building pressure to restrict the Silver Ferns to just nine goals and steal the lead, 44-39.
In the final 15 minutes, both goal attacks from each side were required to step up. Ekenasio tried to offset the pressure heaped on Nweke and Wood tried to get around the relentless Silver Ferns defence with some long-range shots.
Ultimately, a player of the match performance from Wood saw the Diamonds persist to take their biggest lead of the game by 8 goals midway through the last quarter.
Taurua was forced to give in, making a change in defence (Jane Watson for Kelly Jury in GK) and two in the midcourt (Heffernan for Whitney Sounness in centre, Crampton for Peta Toeava in wing attack).
The intensity during these later stages of the game really lifted a notch as these fresh legs came on court, the South African crowd picked a side and the physicality reached a boiling point.
Karin Burger had already received a warning from the umpire throughout the third quarter, but was somehow afforded another warning and a caution up the other end in the final quarter despite repeated infringements.
There was another particular moment involving the officiating that got tongues’ wagging with roughly six minutes to go, when Nweke tried to set up a screen to prevent Bruce from continuing her hold over Ekenasio’s shot.
The players got locked in a wrestle for space and both hit the ground.
At this point, a goal had already been scored by Ekenasio, but the umpire had been so fixated by the tussle that she couldn’t remember what happened.
Time was held and the two umpires met on the side of the court, but neither could confirm whether a goal had been scored. Instead they reverted to a toss-up between Bruce and Nweke to determine which team should get possession — a move that netball hasn’t seen at the international level for a very long time.
Meanwhile, all of us back home as well as the broadcast team knew exactly what had happened with the benefit of a replay. Hopefully this incident will encourage World Netball to think harder about innovating the game and using broadcast technology to help the officials in these situations?
Luckily, it didn’t impact the score or the result of the match, which carried on in the Diamonds’ favour and saw Brazill finish the game with another cracking intercept.
Overall, the Diamonds will feel pretty confident with their performance throughout their undefeated defence of the Quad Series; especially in this final encounter with New Zealand that puts them in good stead for July.
Without some of their senior players like Gretel Bueta and Jo Weston, they were still able to get the result.
It has also given them a better indication of where the Silver Ferns are at, now some of their experienced performers have returned to the line-up and their fitness levels have kicked up another gear.
England have some serious questions to sort out with their coaching direction, South Africa could be a dark horse as the hosts, and who knows what Jamaica will bring when July comes.
But one thing is for sure, the Silver Ferns are back in a big way and could very well be Australia’s biggest challenge at the 2023 Netball World Cup.