Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Netball: Silver + Diamonds = Gold

A rich tradition of sparkling contests makes this the jewel of transtasman sporting rivalries.

Maria Tutaia and Temepara George celebrate winning gold at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. Photo / Getty Images
Maria Tutaia and Temepara George celebrate winning gold at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. Photo / Getty Images

Here we go again. The contest between the Silver Ferns and Australian Diamonds has become the greatest rivalry in transtasman sport - and probably one of the closest on the planet - and there are no signs of that changing in the near future.

New Zealand and Australia can't be separated and that is not just referring to the increasing amount of physical contact in the sport.

Over the past decade, the two teams, who meet today in Invercargill, have clashed on 44 occasions, in Manchester, Kingston, Delhi and Singapore, as well as every major city in Australia and New Zealand.

During that period, each side has won 22 times. Close contests have become the norm as well; 70 per cent of the games in the past four years have been decided by five goals or less.

It's not comparable to any other Anzac contest. The Wallabies were competitive between 1998 and 2003 but the All Blacks have been supremely dominant for the past decade.

The league situation is even more one-sided, with Kiwi victories still rare despite increasingly close matches. Cricket laments the death of the Chappell-Hadlee series, the football sides hardly ever meet and in basketball, Australia still hold a discernible edge.

"These matches with Australia are one of the reasons you play netball," says Ferns attacker Jodi Brown.

"The chance to play in these games keeps you going, keeps you training through those long sessions and keeps you working hard. It's the pinnacle and a driving motivation for a lot of players."

Brown's first experience was back in 2003, as a young gun in a mature Ferns team that featured Belinda Colling and Anna Rowberry.

A generation of players have come and gone since then but nothing has changed.

"No one wants to back down," says Brown. "It's always super intense and incredibly fast; sometimes you feel like you don't have time to breathe. There is so much passion and desire. The physicality out there can be tough but it makes it a great spectacle for the fans."

Brown struggled in her debut 10 years ago, marked by Australian legend Liz Ellis.

"It was not my finest performance," says Brown, "It's hard to play your natural game at that level and it can be a bit overwhelming. But you soon adapt - you have to - otherwise you won't survive."

"They're always classic matches," says Silver Ferns vice-captain Laura Langman. "Both sides tend to bring out the best in each other. They are the kind of games that can turn on one mistake or piece of brilliance."

Both teams have had short periods of dominance. In the aftermath of the 2003 world championships, the Ferns won eight of the next 10 matches, while the Diamonds lost only two games in 10 in the period just before and after the 2007 world championships.

However, the longest winning streak over the past decade has been just four matches and since 2007, no team has strung together more than three consecutive victories.

Off the court, relations between the two teams have generally been amicable, certainly nothing like the recent tension between the All Blacks and Wallabies.

Things got frosty for a period during Norma Plummer's tenure, as the Diamonds coach seemed to enjoy some verbal jousting, perhaps in an attempt to gain a psychological advantage. Not all of what Plummer said was unwarranted or incorrect but it was unusual in the previously genteel world of netball.

Plummer and Ruth Aitken had little time for each other by the end of their respective reigns, which sometimes influenced relations between the playing groups.

In contrast, current coaches Wai Taumaunu and Lisa Alexander have a strong relationship, with occasional phone chats (though certain subjects are barred).

Most of the players have connections through social media (Facebook and Twitter especially) and the teams normally convene for a dinner at the end of each series.

They often stay in the same hotel, which can lead to some awkward moments over breakfast, though in recent years the management teams from both sides have arranged separate dining areas or times to alleviate any discommodiousness.

The Ferns are the current holders of the Constellation Cup, after a 3-2 series victory last year. The teams travel to Auckland for the second test in Auckland on Thursday, before the Australian leg of the series in early October.

- Herald on Sunday

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