Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: Silver Ferns gamble and get options for the future

Head Coach Janine Southby. Photo / Getty Images
Head Coach Janine Southby. Photo / Getty Images

The Silver Ferns have converted setbacks into wins so far this season.

We will see whether those gains will be enough to wrest netball's Constellation Cup away from Australia next month.

Janine Southby's side went into the international season in a vulnerable position. They had lost five members of last year's World Cup campaign, including star performers in Casey Kopua (maternity leave) and Maria Tutaia (injured).

The Ferns' depth was further put to the test on the eve of their opening match when in-form defender Anna Harrison was ruled out of the Quad Series, and subsequently the Jamaican series, with a calf injury.

That saw Jane Watson " a player that didn't initially make the wider New Zealand squad of 16 " added to the line-up for the opening test against England, bringing the number of uncapped players in the Ferns to four, a third of the team.

Despite a limited build-up to the international season, the new-look side has generally gelled together extremely well over the past six matches. There were a couple of disappointing patches in last week's 3-0 series defeat of Jamaica, when the players struggled to adjust to new combinations on court. But, with Southby using her bench freely, giving all 12 players a run over the course of the series, there were always going to be times when the connections looked a little rough.

Of greater import for Southby, the players handed opportunities due to the absence of key players have more than delivered.

Pulse shooter Ameliaranne Ekenasio was a stand-out at goal attack in the Quad Series, while Watson has continued her stunning rise, cementing her place in the starting line-up after just two matches. The pair have put the pressure on Tutaia and Harrison to reclaim their spots in the starting seven once they return from injury " an announcement which is expected later this week.

Regardless of who gets the starting berth, Southby is now in a position where she has genuine options on her bench, giving her the ability to mix up her game plan against the Diamonds. It is difficult to recall a time when a New Zealand coach has been in this position, with strong alternate lines at each end of the court.

The young Ferns proved they were capable of matching it with the world champions in the Quad Series decider earlier this month. They challenged the Diamonds, and even led for sustained periods, before physical and mental pressure took its toll in the final five minutes and Australia ran out 60-55 winners.

It was an all-too familiar scenario against Australia, with the Diamonds' relentless defensive style such that it pays dividends later in the match. Coupled with the free-scoring abilities of Caitlin Bassett, it only takes a lapse of a couple of minutes for Australia to punish their opposition.

Having options on the bench to change up the pace and timing on attack, or add a different element defensively will help mitigate against this.

The growth of players like Ekenasio and Watson this year is worth bearing in mind as the Ferns contemplate a 2017 season without Laura Langman. The star midcourter is set to take up a contract in the new Australian league next season, making her ineligible for Silver Ferns selection.

While Langman's absence will be a massive blow, it will force the Ferns to learn to play without their midcourt general.

Should Langman return to New Zealand in 2018 ahead of the pinnacle events " the Commonwealth Games and World Cup " she will return to a Ferns side in a much stronger place.

- NZ Herald

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