On the other side of the planet, early on Monday morning, the New Zealand netball team completed a stunning turnaround. From the depths of humiliation at last year's Commonwealth Games, the Silver Ferns became world champions with a one goal win over Australia. Rarely have a sports team come so far, so fast to achieve their singular aim.
As Ameliaranne Ekenasio’s long, loopy shot sailed towards the goal in an exaggerated arc, Silver Ferns fans held their collective breath.
For an excruciating half second the ball bobbled around the rim, before bouncing out. But while it was in flight Ekenasio managed to slink her way under the net. Off balance, she collected the rebound and calmly made sure of the second attempt.
It was a crucial goal in the context of a tense World Cup final against Australia, the overwhelming favourites for the Liverpool crown. After finding themselves down by five goals early in the final spell, Australia had pegged the deficit back to one with 10 minutes left on the clock. Another turnover would have given the Diamonds the opportunity to level the match and go one up with the resulting centre pass, in what could have been a hammer blow to the Ferns' psyche after leading by as many as seven in the third quarter.
As New Zealand tried to regather themselves from the stumble, the camera flicked to coach Noeline Taurua smiling serenely on the sideline.
In the stomach churning heat of a World Cup final, Taurua actually seemed to be enjoying herself.
“It was a really weird feeling. I was quite calm - I don’t know why,” Taurua said in a post-match interview.
The emotion finally came when the Silver Ferns prepared to take to the podium to receive their World Cup winners medals. As the announcer spoke of the turmoil the Ferns had been through over the past year and their remarkable turnaround, tears sprang to Taurua’s eyes and she rested her head on the shoulder of Maria Folau.
There are many compelling storylines in the Silver Ferns’ World Cup triumph: the end of a 16-year title drought; the fairytale finish for New Zealand’s most experienced trio - Folau, Casey Kopua and captain Laura Langman - for whom the “big dance” was their last dance; the redemption of Katrina Rore, who captained the side through its bleakest period and became the face of the Commonwealth Games horror show - the result of institutional failings far bigger than her; the nerveless performances of Ekenasio in the goal circle; and the arrival of Jane Watson as a genuine world-class defender.
But perhaps the most intriguing storyline of all was how Taurua managed to take a team that had no confidence in themselves and turn them into world champions.
For the other semifinalists - Australia, England and South Africa - their campaign had been four years in the making. In some cases, it had been eight years of careful planning. Taurua had just 10 months to resurrect a programme in utter disarray after three years of questionable decision-making from Netball NZ.
She warned when she was appointed to the top job that she wasn’t going to be able to save the world.
But she could, as it turns out, beat them.
Silver Ferns celebrate their Netball World Cup win over Australia.
Silver Ferns celebrate their Netball World Cup win over Australia.
The magic of simplicity
Taurua wasn’t really sure she could do the job. Logistically speaking that was.
She had been tapped on the shoulder for the Ferns job, but she was having doubts that she would be able to give what was required to the role as well as lead the Sunshine Coast Lightning in the Australian league.
Fuller told Taurua she could absolutely juggle both jobs, she would just need good people on the ground in New Zealand putting in place her master plan.
“So I said, ‘what are you doing for the next 10 months?’” Taurua laughs.
Their first planning meeting spanned the Tasman Sea and countless cups of green tea.
With little time to waste and Taurua based on the Sunshine Coast, the blueprint for the Silver Ferns World Cup triumph was created during one epic Zoom conference call.
The campaign was broken down into three stages: the 2018 international season, which included the September Quad Series and a four-test Constellation Cup series against Australia; the December training camp and return Quad Series in England in January; and last month’s preparation camp on the Sunshine Coast, followed by a warm-up series against the New Zealand men, a NZ A invitational and Fiji.
During each of these stages there were clear objectives that needed to be achieved.
“Within the first Quad Series and the Constellation Cup, we needed to get as many people involved as possible in those teams and really see what we were working with, whilst still trying to build a base. So we had players that we knew would provide a spine, but it was actually quite difficult because everything around that was moving,” says Taurua.
The December camp, which included a group of 25 players, was about building an understanding of the style Taurua and Fuller wanted to play, and what would be required of the athletes to pull it off. They set mandatory benchmarks the players needed to hit in their fitness tests to be in the running for selection, and statistical targets for players in each position.
There was talk of implementing processes and structures - terms that at the time seemed vague and overly simplistic.
But the magic was in the simplicity.
As the gap between the Ferns and Diamonds on the international stage has grown over the last decade, the Australian style of play tended to be mythicised on this side of the Tasman. As if the players had a preternatural ability simply by coming through the Aussie system.
But Taurua’s time coaching across the Tasman had given her a new perspective on the Australian style. She recognised that, when you boil it all down, what makes the Australians so effective is their ability to ruthlessly execute the core skills of their respective positions under pressure.
“You think you have an idea of what the Australian style is, but then once you’re kind of immersed in it, you develop a better understanding of it,” says Taurua, who returns to the Sunshine Coast this week to link back up with her Lightning side for the second half of the Australian League as they chase a third straight title.
What we found out of the Quad Series in that first stage was that our skillset wasn’t where it needed to be in relation to their position.
“I had a certain type of game that I wanted to play, so we had to peel it back to the skill set of what was required for that.”
That meant the most crucial period during the campaign would be the ANZ Premiership season, when the players were out of Taurua’s control. Getting buy-in from each of the franchise coaches was crucial.
“That’s when the growth of individuals needed to take place,” says Taurua.
“We were quite limited and we needed to broaden that. And I also feel - and this is from my own experience as well - that when you get into franchise stuff you just work all the strategy and the bigger stuff. You don’t spend enough time on the skillset and those real basics.”
Laura Langman in a Quad Series match against South Africa
Laura Langman in a Quad Series match against South Africa
Taurua wanted shooters who could muscle up, work for one another rather than in isolation by setting screens and creating space for their partner, and yes, players who could put the ball through the net.
She wanted midcourters that could change up their movement patterns, had the ability to make repeated efforts to get free from a player, and had the footwork to get around a strong three-foot mark.
She wanted fleet-footed defenders too - those with ability to use their footwork to get around the player. And she wanted defenders who were able to contest the line of the ball, driving on hard as if they were the attacking player.
Specialist skills camps for each area of the court were scheduled at various points in the season, with former Silver Ferns Donna Wilkins leading the shooting sessions, Marg Foster the midcourt, and legendary coach Yvonne Willering the defensive end.
This is where the networking abilities of Fuller came into their own. She became the fixer. The details woman.
She closely monitored the progress of all the players in the wider squad, keeping in regular contact with the selectors and specialist coaches and fed that information back to Taurua on a daily basis.
“I became very familiar with the Lightning’s training times,” jokes Fuller.
Along with the skills sessions the other key component was a focus on lifting overall fitness standards. Being able to continue to execute skills under pressure required an uncompromising approach to fitness and conditioning.
The players were required to do a Bronco test every week - a quick, but painful fitness test, in which athletes run shuttles of 20, 40, and 60m and repeat five times - along with longer yoyo tests at various points in the season. All the testing results, along with stats from each of their matches, were uploaded to the team’s Slack channel - an internal communications system.
“Our whole idea was there was nowhere to hide and everyone could see what everyone else was doing,” says Taurua.
“We were building the culture of what we wanted this team to be and we really saw which players were willing to live it, which I think is really important.”
It was not just a one-way flow of information. Fuller says after each round of the ANZ Premiership, the players were given notes from the selectors as part of their performance plans.
“It was very transparent and very direct communication about their performance. But it was strength-based, so they didn’t get a whole lot of notes about their work-ons, it was trying to be as constructive as possible,” says Fuller.
From that matrix of testing results, statistics and information gleaned from the previous three test series, 12 special players emerged.
An absence of fear
Whichever way you crunched them, the numbers looked ominous for the Silver Ferns.
They headed to Liverpool with a 30 per cent winning record under Taurua, with their only wins coming against a rapidly improving South Africa in their Quad Series match-ups, and an 11-goal victory over Australia in the Constellation Cup in October, which the Diamonds went on to win 3-1.
Tracey Neville’s England side looked to have the better of New Zealand, having won their previous five meetings, including the most recent two by a margin of 13 goals.
They were on a three-game losing streak to Jamaica - a side they hadn’t beaten since 2016.
The net result was the Ferns had slumped to fourth in the INF world rankings - their lowest position since the rankings system was introduced to international netball in 2008.
And yet, anyone who was paying attention - really paying attention - to the Ferns performances in their warm-up matches against the New Zealand men’s side would have recognised this was a side capable of going all the way.
It was there in the way the shooting end - for so long the Ferns’ Achilles heel - held strong against the aerial attacks of the defenders, who seemed to hang in the air for an age while the shooters lined up their attempts.
It was there in the way the attacking end was able to problem solve out on court. They didn’t get flustered when they were caught out by the speed or reach of the defenders, they just re-adjusted their approach for next time.
It was there in the way Casey Kopua and Karin Burger were able to muscle the men off their line, driving through hard onto the ball to snaffle intercepts.
It was there in the way Jane Watson - at 1.81m positively diminutive by international defenders standards - was able to get up in the air to contest the ball into the men’s 2.14m shooter, Junior Levi.
Taurua may not have gotten the results she wanted from the Constellation Cup and two Quad Series, but what she did get were answers.
“All that stuff up the front was research I suppose, but in real time,” says Taurua.
“Out of all that we were able to spread the wings and say this is what we’re about, and this is what we need and these are the reasons for our performance, or lack of performance at times. It was sort of like going through pain. You’ve got to go through the pain to actually see what we’ve got.
“It was very difficult to be able to do, knowing that you’re still building and trying to work the systems, but once again there was a real purpose or objective to what we wanted to achieve out the other side.”
She learned, for example, that Ekenasio was at her best when she sat out in front at goal attack, rather than being pinned in behind a defender in the goal circle. And that while Langman was the Ferns’ strongest centre and wing defence, the attack line functioned better with her at centre. And she learned which defenders worked best as a unit.
More importantly, she learned plenty about what the players contributed to the group off the court.
We were preparing for eight games in 10 days, we needed to know they can handle it. Not just physically, but also mentally.
“I think sometimes with the young players especially who aren’t used to the test environment - because it is very different to playing once a week like in ANZ - that’s what happens to them. They disengage and withdraw into themselves a bit, they’re like kids. And when they start to wilt like that they become this extra baggage you have to carry.”
The Ferns had ridden themselves of other baggage, too, by the time they stepped onto the plane bound for Liverpool on a cold Wednesday night earlier this month.
There was an utter lack of fear in the team.
As individuals and as a group all had experienced extreme lows over the previous couple of years. Several of the group had been through the humiliation of being part of a team to make unwanted history, finishing outside of the medals for the first time at a major tournament.
Then there were players like Bailey Mes and Shannon Saunders, who had been axed from the team in the wake of that horror campaign. Or Rore and Te Paea Selby-Rickit, who were overlooked for selection by Taurua at the beginning of the year when they failed to fire in the Constellation Cup.
The thing about hitting rock bottom is, you no longer fear it.
“It’s quite a good landscape to start from, because the only way is up for them,” Taurua laughs.
“For some of them, we came into this tournament in a different way. I think also because they have been down and been out of the Silver Ferns, it has given them a different perspective on netball. It has allowed them to achieve some balance, and out of that balance you sometimes see things through a different lens. They have a better ability to handle the pressure because they know where netball sits in their life.”
M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool
The discovery of belief
Looking around the M&S Arena in Liverpool, you would barely have known the Silver Ferns were at the World Cup. Their star players did not feature on any of the banners or in the glossy marketing for the tournament - a reflection of how far the team had sunk in the international pecking order over the past 18 months.
It was all about the perennial favourites Australia, the unorthodox Jamaicans, the fast-improving South Africans and the home side England, who were hoping to cap off a remarkable period of growth for the sport in the UK with their first world title.
That suited the Ferns just fine. They were happy to fly under the radar.
The timing of their early round robin matches, scheduled for the benefit of New Zealand television audiences, also ensured they kept a low profile at the event. Their first few pool play matches were played at 9am or 11am local time, meaning they had cleared out of the venue by the time the crowds rolled in to see the big guns in action.
While the Ferns went about their business quietly during the preliminary rounds, easily dispatching Malawi, Barbados, Singapore, Zimbabwe and Northern Ireland, all the action was happening over the other side of the draw, with England, Jamaica and South Africa fighting it out for two semifinal positions.
The first big test was a crossover match against the three-time defending world champions, Australia. With both sides already assured of a place in the semifinals, the match would determine their seedings heading into the top four.
For those that read a lot into history, the concern was not that the Ferns would lose to Australia, but that they would beat them.
Four years earlier in Sydney, Waimarama Taumaunu’s side had shocked the Diamonds during pool-play, pulling off a five-goal win. That result not only fired up the Australian side, it gave them a good insight into the Ferns’ defensive structures, which had changed up ahead of the tournament.
When they met again in the final, Australia blew them off the court 16-7 in the first quarter - a hammer blow the Ferns never recovered from.
It was hoped this time around the Ferns could keep a few cards up their sleeve ahead of a potential meeting in the final. A narrow loss was considered the ideal result.
“Hopefully Noels doesn’t beat them by accident,” joked one netball pundit.
They very nearly did topple Australia - quite deliberately as well. After finding themselves eight goals down late in the second period, the Ferns clawed their way back to go down by just one goal having had the opportunity to level the game in the final seconds.
Even then, it was clear the Diamonds expected that would be the last they would see of New Zealand at the tournament.
When defender Jo Weston was asked in a post-match interview what they had learned about the Ferns that they could take through to a potential meeting in the final, she initially looked confused by the question.
“Yeah, I guess we could meet New Zealand again,” she said.
The loss had seen the Ferns set up a semifinal match-up against a red-hot England side, who had whooped and fist-pumped their way into the final four with confident wins over Jamaica and South Africa in the second round.
The Ferns needed to produce their absolute best to get past the slick Roses unit. And they delivered.
The opening five minutes of the match were arguably the best netball the Ferns produced across the tournament, as Watson and Kopua completely dismantled the shooting pairing of Helen Housby and Jo Harten, who up until that point, had looked unstoppable.
If the opening five minutes demonstrated the ruthless and explosive style Taurua had implemented, the final five minutes proved they could pair it with an ability to control the pace of the game and grind it out when the pressure came on.
It was these last five minutes - when England were desperately throwing everything at them to overturn a deficit between two and five goals - that showed the real growth in the team.
With one minute 20 seconds left on the clock and two goals up, the Ferns maintained possession of their own centre pass for more than a minute, before Ekenasio effectively sealed the match with one of her trademark teardrop shots, that seemed to hang in the air for an eternity.
The 47-45 win consigned England to yet another third vs fourth place play-off.
Asked how the team would approach the final against Australia, who had narrowly scraped past South Africa earlier that day, Taurua said her side were excited for the opportunity.
“We’ve got nothing to lose in some ways. We’ve already won.”
Many interpreted that as a sign the Ferns were just content to be in the “big dance” having been tipped by some to finish as low as fourth. Those that did were significantly underestimating the desire in the camp.
Australia might have felt they had a point to prove after being pipped for gold by England at the Commonwealth Games 15 months prior. But the likes of Langman, Kopua and Folau had 12 years of World Cup pain to resolve.
They threw everything they had into what is expected to have been their final 60 minutes in the black dress.
When the margin is so narrow it is tempting to reduce the outcome of finals to a single major turning point. In reality, it was a series of small moments over a tense final quarter that added up to a big result.
Ekenasio’s miracle rebound, Kopua’s intercept on the baseline with nine minutes remaining, Gina Crampton’s pinpoint pass to find Folau in clear space right under the goal, Rore swiping the ball away from the waiting hands of Liz Watson after Caitlin Bassett found herself isolated at the top of the circle, Jane Watson employing her “jet shoes” to get in the air and get her hand to a rebound.
And Langman, ducking and weaving her way around the court to take six passes in one possession to help patiently work the ball into the shooters.
In the chaos of the emotional scenes that erupted after the final whistle, there are three images that stand out.
The sight of Langman, who seemed to be confused as to whether the game was over or not, standing stunned on the circle edge as she waited to set a penalty, before the realisation hit a second before she was mobbed by her teammates.
The absolute delight on the face of Folau, who immediately burst into tears and embraced her teammates as time was called on a 16-year drought for the Ferns.
And an exhausted Kopua, who has given everything to the black dress over the past decade and a half - including her patella tendon and most of her ligaments in both ankles - fronting the post-match interview with daughter Maia on her hip.
With the result still sinking in, Kopua was lost for words at times. But when asked what Taurua had done to pull off such a remarkable turnaround, Kopua didn’t hesitate.
“She gave us belief.
“When you’ve got the belief like that, nothing can stop you.”