Netball: Silver Ferns celebrate epic year

By Cathy Walshe

Maria Tutaia and Temepara George celebrate after their victory at the Delhi Games. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Maria Tutaia and Temepara George celebrate after their victory at the Delhi Games. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Netball's enduring image of 2010 might be somewhat unorthodox, but it perfectly encapsulates how much the Silver Ferns invested in defending their Commonwealth Games gold medal.

The New Zealanders left everything on the court at the Delhi Games, and they celebrated in similar style after securing a 66-64 double extra time win over arch-rivals Australia.

Soon after Maria Tutaia sunk the winning goal, she and centre Temepara George were rolling around the netball court in ecstasy as the Australians were left long-faced and teary at the narrow loss.

In what has been described as arguably the most incredible netball test ever, both teams had the winning of the game at several stages of the match.

The Silver Ferns led 40-33 early in the final quarter of regulation time, only to go into panic mode in the last two minutes and seemingly throw away the gold medal.

But they levelled the scores 58-58 in the last second of extra time, forcing the game into a sudden death spell with the first side opening a two-goal lead getting the gold.

A couple of inspired halftime changes by coach Ruth Aitken proved pivotal in securing the win: former beach volleyball international Anna Scarlett's long reach at wing defence wreaked havoc, while Liana Barrett-Chase at wing attack upped the tempo noticeably.

Tutaia then stepped up with a magnificent display of clutch shooting, and celebrated in style once the final whistle went.

New Zealand captain Casey Williams summed it up afterwards: "If we have to drag each other off the court then that's what we have to do. Pretty much you can't leave anything in the tank."

The season hadn't started that promisingly for the Silver Ferns, however. A first-up 92-28 win over Samoa, followed by two lop-sided wins against the touring Jamaicans provided no real opposition as the New Zealanders headed in a three-test series against Australia.

The Diamonds looked comfortable in securing a five-goal win in the first test on August 29, but the Silver Ferns bounced back with an astonishing 59-40 victory four days later.

Normal service was resumed in the third test, with Australia controlling the game for a six-goal win.

The next time the two teams met was in New Delhi, and the New Zealanders proved their mettle in ensuring four more years of Commonwealth Games bragging rights for a distraught Australian team.

The good news didn't end there, either. In November, a second-tier New Zealand team travelled to Liverpool to successfully defend the fastnet title they won last year in the abbreviated version of the game.

Although Australia also sent a virtual B team, England and Jamaica provided near full-strength line-ups for the three-day tournament where games are played in six-minute quarters with unlimited substitutions, double point power plays, and two-point shots from outside the circle.

After a first-up heavy loss to Australia, the Robyn Broughton-coached New Zealanders improved with every game, inflicting a 29-28 semifinal loss on Jamaica before downing England 28-26 in the final.

When it came to trans-Tasman netball earlier in the year, the Australians once again proved unbeatable.

Two New Zealand teams made the semifinals of the 14-week trans-Tasman league, but it was the Australians who finished strongest.

Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic recovered from some mid-season wobbles to down Southern Steel 50-42 in the minor semifinal, then accounted for 2008 champions NSW Swifts 54-49 to secure a berth in the grand final against Adelaide Thunderbirds.

But the Thunderbirds never looked like being headed, dominating the Magic 52-42 for a comprehensive win.

At provincial level, the early season Lois Muir Challenge was won by Western with maximum points, after they downed closest competitors Otago 54-49 on the closing weekend of the four-week competition.

And Canterbury won the national provincial championship by the narrowest of margins, continuing an undefeated run to hold off defending champions Auckland-Waitakere 53-52.

But despite the highs of 2010, the Silver Ferns' focus is already sharpening on next year's world championship in Singapore.

Their 38-42 loss in Auckland to Australia in 2007 still rankles, and although the Commonwealth Games gold has eased the pain somewhat, the ultimate target has yet to be achieved.

- NZPA

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