A pulsating final quarter helped the Silver Ferns clinch a dramatic 53-52 win over Australia in the opening match of the four-Test Constellation Cup, played as part of the Cadbury Netball Series in Christchurch on Sunday.
It was the first time in four years that the Silver Ferns have delivered back-to-back wins over their great rivals and the first time they have beaten the Diamonds in Christchurch since 2004, in front of a sell-out crowd.
After building a five-goal lead during the second quarter, the Silver Ferns were on the back-foot heading into the home straight, a serious challenge by the visitors gaining Australia a similar advantage going into the last 15 minutes.
Captain Laura Langman’s tireless court coverage and steadying hand, the shooting of Ameliaranne Ekenasio (29 shots from 31 attempts) and a timely turnover by last quarter defensive replacement Karin Burger with 90 seconds left on the clock, helped the Silver Ferns produce a finish with a gallop when sealing the final stanza 14-8.
“We wanted to make sure we trampolined from World Cup to here. There was some really good stuff from us and some that needs some polish,” Langman said afterwards.
“But it was great to be able to back up our World Cup win.”
In a similarly close encounter, the Silver Ferns beat Australia 52-51 in July’s World Cup final.
“Both sides have great depth and versatility on the bench. It was a real nail-biter and could have gone either way.”
With a knee strain ruling Gina Crampton out of the opening Test, Shannon Saunders got the start at wing attack for the Silver Ferns. After her impressive run from the opposite wing during the World Cup, Katrina Rore again slotted in at wing defence while Phoenix Karaka got her opportunity at goal defence in the wake of Casey Kopua’s retirement.
In her 99th Test in charge, Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander opted to start with livewire midcourter Ash Brazill, back after a three-year absence, at wing defence along with athletic goal attack Gretel Tippett and impressive in-circle defender Sarah Klau.
With the world champions taking on the Constellation Cup holders, there was plenty to play for and no surprises when a tight and uncompromising tussle took immediate effect.
Big defensive efforts were employed by both sides, meaning the passage to goal took patience and lots of hard work on attack. Kept under early wraps, Silver Ferns shooters Maria Folau and Ekenasio settled effectively to give the home side the narrowest of edges.
Australia had a little more trouble finding their shooters as the Silver Ferns nudged to a 13-11 lead at the first break.
The impasse continued as the teams went goal-for-goal on the resumption, the Silver Ferns brick-like defensive wall eventually providing turnover opportunities as they stretched out to a five-goal buffer. A picture of poise under the hoop, Ekenasio posted an impressive 17 goals from 18 attempts during the half.
Coming on for her debut, at 31, with three minutes left on the clock, diminutive wing attack Laura Scherian helped a resurgent Australia head into the halftime break within touching distance when trailing the Silver Ferns 26-25.
With nothing separating the teams during an opening goal-for-goal 10 minutes of the third term, a forceful closing five minutes broke the game wide open in the Diamonds favour.
Scherian’s quick ball release on attack and suffocating defence, with Brazill and goal defence Jo Weston prominent, Australia turned the screws on the Silver Ferns. The visitors made the most of their opportunities to reverse the earlier trend when taking a handy 44-39 lead into the last break.
The second match in the series will be played in Auckland on Wednesday night.