Athletic Jamaicans seen as main rivals in Fast5 tournament, with radical rule changes for shooting and substitution designed to excite the fans.
The Fast Ferns have been handed plenty of creative licence in this weekend's World Netball Series in Auckland. The three-day tournament, which begins today at Vector Arena, will be the first time the event has been run under the revised rules for the shortened form of the game.
Introduced in 2009, Fastnet, as it was originally known, has struggled to take off with fans in its first three years, the rules not all that much different from the traditional game. This year the format has been given a radical overhaul with the number of players in a team cut to five, and the introduction of three-point shots, rolling substitutions and powerplay quarters.
Version 2 of the game, which has been rebranded Fast5, offers plenty of scope for innovation.
After a busy international season, the Fast Ferns - featuring most of New Zealand's top talent, including Irene van Dyk, Maria Tutaia, Laura Langman and Katrina Grant - have had little time to get their head around the changes. So one of the first tasks for the side when they reassembled in camp this week was to sit down and go over the rules and have a bit of a brainstorm.
Despite feeling weary after a demanding international season, Langman said there was still plenty of enthusiasm in the camp ahead of the weekend's tournament.
She said it helped that coach Waimarama Taumaunu had encouraged the team to go out and have some fun.
"It's not a serious test series, it's a little bit light-hearted, it's a new brand of netball and we're all really excited about it," said Langman.
"We certainly have some creative characters in our team and they've come up with a few things that we'll hopefully be able to pull off."
As she has all season, Langman can expect to have a heavy workload during the tournament with only one midcourt position on court.
While the games are just 24 minutes long, the super-fit midcourter expects the matches to be demanding.
"Taking away two players does up the workload for everyone out there, and it will be a matter of how efficient and how smart a team operates," said Langman, who will once again take over the captaincy this weekend in the absence of Casey Williams.
One area Taumaunu has indicated her team will be looking at closely is the centre-pass defence. Without the wing attack and wing defence positions, it will effectively be three-on-two in favour of the defensive side for the centre pass-off.
"We envisage it will be very challenging trying to get that centre pass away," said Taumaunu.
Australian coach Lisa Alexander has indicated she plans to play midcourters at goal attack in more of a feeding role. With only one traditional goal attack in the group - Amorette Wild - Alexander said it was likely midcourters Elissa Macleod, Verity Simmons or Shae Bolton would be used at goal attack.
"They can all shoot from the three-point zones so we'll give them that licence to do so when appropriate and we know that they'll feed our shooters really well," said Alexander.
While Alexander has opted to use the tournament for development and brought a second-tier side to Auckland, Langman expects the Fast5 Diamonds will be competitive this weekend.
However, she singled out the Jamaicans as their strongest rivals for the crown.
"Looking at it I think Jamaica can be very dangerous, just due to their pure athleticism and ability to jump and sprint.
"They're very crafty, so we have to watch out for them."
The Sunshine Girls are one of the few teams in Auckland that have had a chance to trial the new rules and the more free-flowing, creative style of game is expected to favour the Jamaicans.
Captain Nadine Bryan is excited by her side's progress at training and believes the new format suits Jamaica's attributes.
"We got a chance to practise the rules back home and strategise as to what we need to do. We really do like the changes, and doing things a little differently when we've played it back home there's been a lot of stuff we've done that is really exciting."
As part of the festival feel of the tournament, competing teams have been encouraged to break from their traditional uniforms for the event - something Jamaica have keenly grasped hold of in previous years. Bryan is promising this year's looks will be eye-catching.
"One of [our] uniforms wasn't completed ... so we only have one of the new uniforms, but we've come up with something else."
The Fast5 Ferns meet Jamaica in the tournament's first match tonight.
Hotshots for the Fast5 tournament
Maria Tutaia (NZ)
The most natural shooter in the game has the potential to cause real damage. The addition of a new scoring zone inside the circle, which awards two points for shots taken from out wide, seems like it was made for Tutaia, a long-range specialist. Three points will be awarded for shots taken from outside the circle. Tutaia has been practising her three-pointers.
Anna Harrison (NZ)
The Mystics' controversial lifting manoeuvre in the defensive circle was the biggest talking point of this year's ANZ Championship, but the move could be used to even greater effect in Fast5. Anna Harrison undoubtedly remains the best exponent of the move. A format that encourages more long-range shots will give defenders that much longer to set up for the hoist.
Eboni Beckford-Chambers (England)
English defender Eboni Beckford-Chambers has been a revelation over the international season and is expected to be key to England's defence of their World Series title. An aggressive one-on-one defender who also isn't afraid to go out hunting, Beckford-Chambers' versatility will see her excel in this format.
Nadine Bryan (Jamaica)
With only one midcourt position, the centres will carry a big workload. At 1.65cm the Jamaican captain is dwarfed in the midcourt in a game that is increasingly becoming the exclusive domain of giants. But with fewer players on court and more space to roam, Fast5 will bring the smaller players back to the fore. A crafty attacker, Bryan will be hard to stop.
Mwai Kumwenda (Malawi)
Kumwenda became Malawi's first netball export to Australia when she started playing for an Australian club in the Victorian netball champs in 2010. The slight 1.84m shooter is known for her unorthodox movement in the goal circle, making it difficult for defenders to get a handle on her. Malawi coach Griffin Saenda is promising his shooters will go long at every opportunity.
Fast5 World Netball Series
Today - Sunday
Vector Arena, Auckland
* 5.00pm Jamaica v South Africa
* 5.45pm England v Australia
* 6.30pm New Zealand v Jamaica
* 7.15pm Malawi v Australia
* 8.00pm England v South Africa
* 8.45pm Jamaica v Malawi
* 9.30pm New Zealand v Australia
* 4.15pm England v Jamaica
* 5.00pm New Zealand v Malawi
* 5.45pm Australia v South Africa
* 6.30pm England v Malawi
* 7.15pm New Zealand v South Africa
* 8.00pm Australia v Jamaica
* 8.45pm South Africa v Malawi
* 9.30pm New Zealand v England
* 3.15pm Semifinal 1 v 4
* 4.00pm Semifinal 2 v 3
* 4.45pm Play-off for 5th/6th
* 6.40pm Play-off for 3rd/4th loser semifinal 1 v loser semifinal 2
* 7.30pm Grand final winner semifinal 1 v winner semifinal 2.