Encouraging start from the Silver Ferns. Much emphasis has been placed on restoring pride to the black dress at this World Cup, following last year’s Commonwealth Games nadir on the Gold Coast. Tougher tests await but this 64-45 opening victory is the first, positive step in that direction.
Noeline Taurua geared everything about her rebuild for this pinnacle event, and early signs suggest her focus on demanding fitness standards and an explosive style have instigated improvements.
Malawi, ranked ninth in the world, were ideal first up opponents in Liverpool, an immediate reminder of how low the Ferns sunk when they failed to medal for the first time after their shock four-goal loss, the first in New Zealand netball history, to the ‘Queens’ at the Games.
No added motivation needed, then.
Six of the Ferns’ Games squad returned for a chance to avenge memories of that forgettable day, and if this match is any gauge, this appears a very different New Zealand team.
Perspective is needed at this stage, of course.
On this occasion the Ferns were helped by the absence of Malawi’s star shooter Mwai Kumwenda, architect of their famous win with 41 goals from 46 attempts but sidelined for this tournament with a long-term knee injury.
Still, you can only play who takes the court.
Taurua paid Malawi due respect by starting her strongest starting seven.
With this comfortable win banked, she now has the freedom and flexibility to rest and rotate for the Ferns’ next two matches against Singapore and Barbados.
Realistically, we won’t know the credentials of this Ferns squad until they meet Australia in their cross-over match next week.
Already, though, the influence of Laura Langman and Casey Kopua is clear.
Neither veteran, playing in their fourth World Cups, featured at the Games. Taurua has enticed them back and their experience proved inspirational in this opening match.
New Zealand didn’t have it all their way from the opening pass. Initially at least, Malawi’s defence caused difficulties as the Ferns tried to penetrate the shooting circle – forcing held balls and backward passing.
But by the end of the first quarter, the Ferns began to find their flow to establish a six goal advantage that they extended throughout the match.
This is the most pleasing aspect – the part where the Ferns showed discipline to keep their foot on the throat. They won the second quarter by nine goals; the third by four and drew the final period.
New Zealand’s defensive end led the way.
Kopua, with her elevation and anticipation, nabbed intercepts and pressured throughout while Jane Watson, who patrolled outside the circle, chimed in with disruptive tips as the pair stifled much of Malawi’s attack.
Langman guided gradual midcourt fluency; at times the Ferns letting their hands go with quick delivery.
And at the shooting end, the slick connection between Maria Folau and Ameliaranne Ekenasio seems to be growing all the time.
Before being replaced by Te Paea Selby-Rickit for the final quarter, Ekenasio hit 21 from 22 and busted her gut attempting to find space.
Folau’s long bombs were in telling touch, too. She nailed 39 from 43 in an impressive performance to set the tone.
Collectively the Ferns shot at 91 per cent compared to Malawi’s 79.
Despite her side’s dominance, Taurua maintained a strong side. She injected Phoenix Karaka for the slightly subdued Karin Burger at wing defence in the third quarter.
Former captain Katrina Rore, having recovered from her calf injury but on restricted minutes for this match, also replaced Watson for the final quarter.
The Ferns arrive at this World Cup ranked fourth and there is a long way to go before anyone can consider adding another title to those captured in 1987, 2003 and the three-way tie in 1979.
But as far as building blocks for the semifinals go, this victory should see confidence soar.
Nerves settled, job done, onto the next.
“Everyone was waiting with bated breath to get a gauge of where we are as a team but also get an understanding of what needs to happen for us to build. It was a good start,” Taurua said.
“There were areas I thought we were a bit rusty but, in saying that, Malawi play so unorthodox. Overall, not too bad.
“Our error count is really low so I’m pleased with that. I could see our purpose and intent.
“There’s fine tuning that needs to happen, like everybody, but when there were opportunities we were able to push it through.
All the shooters had good percentages and that’s something we’ve been really proud of.