Pressure off but game far from meaningless

Silver Ferns centre Laura Langman in action against Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty Images
Silver Ferns centre Laura Langman in action against Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty Images
Thankfully the Netball World Cup shadowboxing is complete.

With six days of largely one-sided romps put to bed, the final group stage day promises to shake the tree and reveal top-seeded contenders.

On the safety of the easier side of the draw, the Silver Ferns and Australian Diamonds banked five wins each in matches which resembled training exercises. Players and combinations were frequently rotated, quarters counted, in order to preserve leading figures for the business end.

Only now, as New Zealand and Australia prepare to face off, will both heavyweights experience their first competitive game.

And to a certain degree, this match is something of a free hit with no sudden death element attached.

The Ferns and Australia are already locked in the semifinals – and their respective opponents won't be decided until England plays South Africa on Friday morning (NZT), leaving fate somewhat out of their hands.

Push those permutations to the side, though, as when do these great transtasman foes ever stage a meaningless match?

Never, of course.

Australian coach Lisa Alexander sure made her side's intent for the Ferns clear.

"We're pleased we'll have a semifinal opportunity but the game against New Zealand on Thursday is critical to see who ends up in that better semifinal time wise and also against the second place in the other group," Alexander said after Australia cantered to a 74-25 victory over Malawi after leading 41-5 at halftime and making mass changes.

"We've been watching New Zealand pretty closely the whole week, keeping an eye on the scores knowing both teams are going to be fairly evenly matched."

Australia are vengeful defending World Cup champions, seeking to upstage England after the hosts did likewise to claim gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games last year.

That increasingly heated rivalry, and the fact Australia have won four of the past five games against the Ferns, has allowed Noeline Taurua's side to fly firmly under the radar.

As far as Liverpool locals are concerned, all paths lead to an England-Australia final.

England's bubble has inflated to popping point since their Games success while demands on Australia never change – expectations are they win every time they take the court.

For the Ferns the pressure is off, this match at least, though Alexander did her best to talk up changes Taurua has implemented over the past 11 months.

"They are much more fluent. They seem to be happier together as a group which doesn't surprise me with Noels as coach. They just look ready for this contest and they're going to give it a helluva crack.

"We've always got the target on our backs. That's part of the pressure of being Australia, being the world No 1 team, you've got to handle that and get out there and prove it every time.

"There's high expectations within their group. They've got some really proud players – Laura Langman, Casey Kopua, Maria Folau. They are experienced campaigners. They won't be flying under the radar. They know that we respect what they do very much."

To this point Taurua has carefully planned every match, every quarter, every change. Clear objectives and a purpose around being better than the previous day form the backbone of their rebuild.

The Ferns harness quiet confidence about their progress but Taurua knows Australia will deliver a bolt between the eyes about prospects.

"You don't know until you get out there and play some of the big teams," Taurua said. "Once we do take the court, probably in the first five minutes we'll know whether we need to adapt the strategy or we keep going with what we've worked on.

"I'm quite happy and pleased with how we're sitting."

The final word on this intriguing encounter goes to Dan Ryan, the Australian coaching Northern Ireland and assisting the Manchester Thunder.

Ryan's Northern Ireland lost 88-24 (64 goals) to Australia and 77-28 (49) to the Ferns.

"We're seeing the Silver Ferns back to their unique style of netball," Ryan said. "We're seeing some brilliant offline defence; we're seeing some great angles and creativity in attack.

"And with Australia we're seeing ferocious one-on-one defence with some mix ups they haven't had before. They are unbelievably conditioned athletes and the strength on the bench is strong for both teams.

"It's hard to pick – I don't think we know where they sit because neither have had a challenging match yet."

Finally, the foxing is over.

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