The past year left New Zealand's netballers feeling like bridesmaids. Kris Shannon of APNZ considers the sport's highs and lows of 2011 and looks ahead to next year.
That was then:
It was a case of what might have been for New Zealand's netballers in 2011, as they came out on the wrong side of one of sport's great rivalries.
A year after the Silver Ferns pipped Australia in double overtime at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Diamonds turned the tables on their trans-Tasman foes and won the world championships in a similar fashion, edging their adversaries 58-57 in extra time.
And it wasn't just the international game where Australia got the wood over New Zealand. Kiwi sides' struggles on the other side of the Ditch continued in the ANZ Championship, as the Queensland Firebirds overcame the Northern Mystics 57-44 in the final, and the Southern Steel (7th), Central Pulse (8th) and Canterbury Tactix (10th) all finished in the bottom half of the competition.
There were some bright spots, though. Comfortable series wins home and away over England illustrated international netball is still a two-horse race; the Steel's Leana de Bruin (co-MVP) and the Mystics' Kayla Cullen (best young player) scooped individual awards in the ANZ Championship; and the Auckland-based Mystics' improbable run to the ANZ Championship final was one to remember - beating the NSW Swifts in Sydney and the Waikato-BOP Magic in Hamilton in consecutive knockout games.
But all that proved scant consolation in the absence of the real prize. July's world championships in Singapore always shaped as a rematch of last year's epic Commonwealth Games gold medal game and the two key actors in the sequel didn't disappoint, sweeping through the group and knockout stages en route to the final.
A month earlier, the teams couldn't be separated in a two-game series in New Zealand, and that trend continued for 74 minutes in Singapore, before the defending champion Diamonds reclaimed their title in the most dramatic form.
October's three-game series on Australian soil didn't provide any consolation for the Silver Ferns, as the home side triumphed 2-1 to retain the Constellation Cup - awarded annually to the team who wins the most tests between the two nations - and reclaim the No 1 spot in the world rankings. Incredibly, the win was the first time in more than two years either country defeated the other in consecutive games.
To cap of a year of being bridesmaids, the Fastnet Ferns fell to hosts England in the final of the World Netball Series in November, leaving New Zealand's netballers bereft of any major prize at the end of the season.
This is now:
There will be little chance to amend things in 2012. New Zealand host Australia in a September series, providing the sides a chance to rekindle their rivalry but, aside from that, the international calendar is currently bare.
Much interest will surround how new Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu copes in her first full season since taking charge from Ruth Aitken, whose final game was the last loss to the Diamonds in October. Another point of intrigue will be the emergence of goal shoot Catherine Latu from under Irene van Dyk's imposing shadow, and how long the ex-pat South African will continue at the top of the sport.
The fifth season of the ANZ Championship runs from March to July, as the five New Zealand teams look to end their Australian counterparts' stranglehold on the trophy. The Magic, fresh off a third-place finish in 2011's competition, made the biggest splash in the off-season in recruiting defender de Bruin and, along with the Mystics, will probably represent New Zealand's best chances to claim the silverware for the first time.
At the end of the year, the Fastnet World Netball Series will come to these shores for the first time, giving the New Zealand public the chance to see the abbreviated version of the game.
Game of the year:
World championships final, Australia 58 New Zealand 57, Singapore, Sunday, July 11: It may be painful to acknowledge but no other game provided the drama of this - the second year running these two sides could be separated only in extra time with a gold medal on the line.
The Silver Ferns held a one-point lead with one minute on the clock, the ball in their hands and the gold halfway around their necks. But Australian attacker Natalie Medhurst dragged her side back into the contest, stealing the ball and setting up the equalising goal. To extra time the teams went, where Silver Ferns goal attack Maria Tutaia - the hero from the Commonwealth Games win a year earlier - missed a chance to take the game, before Caitlin Bassett made no such mistake and sealed the title for Australia.
Player of the year:
At the tender age of 19, the versatile Kayla Cullen played every game for the Mystics on their march to the ANZ Championship final, where she started at goal defence against the Firebirds. Her performances earned her a spot in the competition's All Star team, the youngest in the side by three years, and the title of best young player. Following the season, Cullen earned elevation to the national side for their series against England.
Controversy of the year:
Catherine Latu was born in Waitakere 25 years ago but, of mixed European and Polynesian descent, decided to play for Samoa at the 2007 world championships in her home town. That participation meant the goal shoot was required to serve a four-year stand down period before she could compete for New Zealand. However, Latu was picked in the Silver Ferns' 2011 world championship squad before her time was up, following impressive performances in partnership with Tutaia for the Mystics. Netball NZ went to extraordinary lengths to ensure her eligibility for the tournament, appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but were eventually denied. Latu sat out the tournament before making her long-awaited debut in October's series against England.
- APNZBy Kris Shannon