Aseries of substandard performances during the Constellation Cup has made the selection of the Silver Ferns side for this month's series against Malawi more difficult than initially expected.
A demoralised Ferns side returned home from Australia yesterday winless after slumping to their fourth straight loss to the Diamonds in Sunday's final test in Canberra. The team will need to quickly regroup before the Malawi series beginning in Wellington late next week.
Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu will name her side for the three-test series today, with changes expected to the 12 who took on Australia. Taumaunu indicated earlier this season that she hoped to use her full squad across the international season, with some of the rookies expected to be called up for test honours during the Malawi series.
But after injury and poor form forced Taumaunu to make changes to her team midway through the series, it has created a few selection dilemmas ahead of the home tests against the African side.
The big decisions to be made are in the midcourt, with the selectors' thinking likely to have changed after the Constellation Cup.
Debutant Courtney Tairi struggled in her first few outings in black, forcing Taumaunu to call in Shannon Francois from the wider squad as added back-up in the midcourt.
Francois made the most of her opportunities, establishing herself as the first-choice wing attack by the end of the series.
With the likes of the injured Camilla Lees and former Fern Liana Leota expected to return to the fold next season, the selectors need to weigh up whether to persevere with Tairi and give her the opportunity to develop her combination with the shooters in a less pressure-fuelled environment, or reward Francois after an impressive debut.
The Ferns also have unheralded midcourter Katarina Cooper waiting in the wings after her shock elevation to the national team this year.
Cooper is expected to be included in the team today at the expense of either Tairi or Anna Thompson, who also struggled to cement her position in Australia, although Thompson has the advantage of offering cover in the shooting circle as well.
The other option is to keep them all in the mix for now and allow midcourt linchpin Laura Langman a much-needed break before what will be a busy 2014 season.
The Ferns have become dangerously over-reliant on Langman in recent seasons, and the team might benefit from resting their workhorse centre who has played 95 straight tests since her debut as a teen in 2005.
It could be interesting to see how the attack end go without having Langman as their safety net.
Southern Steel shooter Jodi Brown is expected to get more court time in this series after failing to get a run against Australia, while defender Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit has also been promised opportunities in this series.
Where the Silver Ferns can probably afford the most experimentation is in the defensive end, where they have been settled with their combinations for the past few seasons. But it is also the area of the court where the Ferns don't have a lot of depth at the moment, with Kayla Cullen only just beginning the long road to rehabilitation after a knee reconstruction, and Anna Harrison on maternity leave for the rest of the year.
That will mean de Bruin, Kopua and Grant will likely still be required during the Malawi series unless selectors opt to elevate a young defender from the accelerant squad.
Taumaunu will be especially excited about the prospect of under-21 star Phoenix Karaka, who is tipped as a star of the future, but it may be too much of a juggle adding more youth to the mix.
Silver Ferns v Malawi
Oct 24 - Wellington
Oct 27 - Napier
Oct 31 - Hamilton.