The worst part is this Malawi meltdown did not come as a major surprise. If you have paid any attention to the Silver Ferns over the past month, let alone two years, such a nadir was always coming.

Netball in New Zealand is at a crossroads. What happens next could shape the sport for years to come.

Unless this team rebounds from the all-time low of losing to Malawi for the first time to somehow upset England in their now sudden death pool match on Wednesday, Janine Southby's position as Ferns coach appears untenable, even at this delicate stage, 14 months out from the 2019 World Cup.

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A new low: Ferns stunned by minnows

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Being competitive against England is not nearly enough.

As far as the Malawi defeat goes, there is no room for excuses. The Commonwealth Games represents one of two pinnacle events for the Ferns. Judgment is always passed at this juncture, and with medal prospects in tatters, the time has come to seek solutions.

At this point, it is worth noting in five previous Games the Ferns claimed two golds and three silver medals. This time, the conversation has fast descended from whether they will reach the final, to merely making it out of the pool.

One some level it is difficult not to feel for Southby. No doubt she is doing her best, and players must take their share of responsibility. Maybe she does not have the right support. Whatever the case, in these situations, at the elite national level, a string of unacceptable results reflect coaching failings.

To a certain extent, Southby is the lightning rod for a series of flawed leadership decisions.

From her appointment over the most successful domestic coach, Noeline Taurua, to the shambolic non-selection of the country's best midcourter, Laura Langman, to the breakaway from the trans-Tasman competition – a move explained to regain New Zealand's "style" – each step must be questioned.

Maria Folau of New Zealand in action. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Maria Folau of New Zealand in action. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

In comparison to its leading counterparts, netball enjoys a dream ride in terms of funding and coverage in New Zealand. Often, though, it takes offence to the same critical analysis other sports accept.

If the Ferns fail to make it out of their pool at these Games, suggestions of the need for a fully independent review will only grow. Rightly so, too. Changing the coach may not be enough. And this rot must be stopped.

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Emerging and established nations are, indeed, improving with more regular games. But with the numbers, influence and resource New Zealand boasts, the Ferns should never lose to Malawi.

It is equivalent of the All Blacks losing to Japan or Ireland defeating the Black Caps.
Consider those reactions.

Southby is a genuine, salt of-the-earth character but that may be part of the issue – this team clearly lacks toughness and any form of killer instinct.

Winning six of their last 15 games, a run which includes three losses to Jamaica and Malawi, is embarrassing for New Zealand's most popular female sport. Given the lack of recent inspiration, and the emergence of rugby sevens, that privileged position could well be under threat.

Those who take to the courts every Saturday morning sure deserve better.

Many once passionate supporters have turned casual observers, fed up and frustrated with consistent capitulations.

Malawi is just the latest, most visible, example.

Three weeks ago the Ferns thumped Malawi 75-42. New Zealand led by seven at half time yesterday, only to implode and lose the third quarter 17-9. This, too, is not a new feat. Worryingly, it speaks to mental frailties.

Expectations were the Ferns could, on their day, upset Australia. Netball is not played the world over but this was still one of our greatest sporting rivalries. Rolling the Diamonds now seems akin to landing 10 shots in succession from halfway.

This Games campaign is not yet over for the Ferns but confidence levels must be close to shot.

Personally, I grew up attending many Silver Ferns games in Palmerston North and Wellington.

Netball, for me, remains as much a part of New Zealand's sporting fabric as rugby.

This decline does not have to be terminal but, right now, it is depressing.

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