With 11 of the 14 available World Cup titles under their belt, the Australian Diamonds are netball’s all-conquering force. As they prepare for their toughest ever test, Dan Ryan and Erin Delahunty unpick what makes them so successful.
Success, they say, speaks for itself. So what does 11 World Cups say? It says more than success – it says dominance.
The Diamonds have dominated international netball in an unprecedented way and as they arrive in Liverpool for the Vitality Netball World Cup, they aim to retain their title and make it a record-breaking four World Cup victories in a row.
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This year, in front of an expectant English crowd, with New Zealand out to bounce back and a Jamaica team ranked second in the world, it might be their toughest assignment.
What makes Australia the game’s most unstoppable force?
Undeniably, pedigree is the cornerstone to Australia’s command; success breeds success.
Ranked number one in the International Netball Federation’s World rankings, Australia – alongside New Zealand – are the only countries to have ever occupied the top spot.
It is also easy to see why. They won a first World Cup back in 1963, most recently in 2015, and have added three Commonwealth gold-winning medals.
Perhaps most remarkably, the Diamonds have never come third. When it has not been gold, they have taken silver, but never have they touched bronze.
Such a heritage of success could be burdensome but for the Aussies, winning has become customary, and to have such a comfortable relationship with success means any rival wishing to topple them is contending not only with an exceptionally talented team but also one with a winner’s mindset.
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Another tool in the Diamonds’ armoury is the style of netball they play and the way they prioritise the basics of the game.
Dan Ryan, an Aussie and former head coach at Adelaide Thunderbirds, explains: “The game [of netball] itself is a simple one and it is played in a similar fashion all around the world, except that there are areas that are prioritised more in different countries.
“All nations are very different, countries in their own right have their own trademarks, the Caribbean nations have their flair, the English are a little bit of a hybrid.
“From an Australian perspective, there’s always been an emphasis on basic skills: execution, incredible footwork, hard tight marking, one-on-one defence and really, the simplistic way of playing the game is what Australia does better than any other country in the world.”
Indeed, the technical emphasis on the fundamentals is rarely ever amiss for Australia on the world stage at crucial moments.
Caitlin Bassett, who will captain this year’s Diamonds in Liverpool, is a prime example of an Australian player committed to her most basic role – shooting.
In the 2015 World Cup semi-final against Jamaica, Bassett hit 94% (49/52) accuracy. It was a statistic she replicated in the final against New Zealand when she made 48 of her 51 shots to lift the Diamonds to their third successive World Cup win.
Suncorp Super Netball
A national side as successful as the Diamonds must also be underpinned by a constant stream of talent and Australia’s professional netball league, Suncorp Super Netball, provides just that.
“Australia has basically been a world-class netballing factory,” Erin Delahunty, Australian netball journalist, told Sky Sports.
“It set out to be a Premier League, I guess in soccer parlance, and it certainly has been that.”
With countries like England, South Africa, Jamaica and Uganda sending over their best players to compete in the Suncorp league, these ‘imports’ serve to also raise the quality of Australia’s league and the Aussies who go toe-to-toe with them week-in-week-out.
Players have to perform under intense pressure and the media spotlight in front of packed arenas as the sport takes back-page headlines.
The rise in imports has empowered countries such as England and Jamaica to challenge the Diamonds on the world stage but ultimately, it is still the Green and Gold that benefit the most as they learn each week what the best of the rest are offering.
It also has its benefits for Diamonds’ coach Lisa Alexander when it comes to selection.
“She [Alexander] had the best competition in the world in front of her and she sat court-side for however many rounds and was able to pick who she thinks is peaking and playing at the best time and so I think she is probably uniquely placed in any of the international coaches to be able to do that,” reflected Delahunty.
Depth of talent is only one side of the coin. Knowing who to select at the right time and then play them at the right moment is a different kind of test and is one Alexander, so far, has rarely gotten wrong.
This year’s Diamonds 12-strong squad has been scrutinised with intensity. After the result of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games last year, Alexander has been challenged on her choices – most notably the omission of former Diamonds vice-captain Gabi Simpson.
“There has been discussion around the relative inexperience of the team,” says Delahunty.
“But as Lisa Alexander has pointed out in recent weeks, the way international netball is at the moment, and the number of games that are played – the Quad Series and things like that – this group of 12, with the exception of I guess, Sarah Klau and potentially Jamie Lee-Price, really have had a couple of years together.
However, talk of inexperience must be contextualised. Delahunty says: “Even though they are relatively inexperienced compared to an England or particularly New Zealand at this World Cup, they have played together. They are not unknown quantities and they are playing in the best netball league in the world and have been consistently for several years.
“There is also experience in the team when it comes to the crunch. It is the experienced players that will stand up. And you’ve got Caitlin Bassett as your captain who has got nearly a 100 caps, has been there before, has been there as a younger player has won major tournaments and now has lost major tournaments so she brings with her a wealth of experience.”
Alexander’s decisions remain to be tested, so it’s yet to be determined whether a squad selection combining debutantes with proven winners is the right one for Australia.
Commonwealth Games 2018
The result of the Commonwealth Games gave Australia an unexpected headache. Beaten in their own back yard, in one of the sport’s showpiece events – and by England – did not go down well.
With a penalty shot on the buzzer put up by Helen Housby, the Roses were propelled to their first-ever gold medal, leaving Australia to settle for a heartbreaking silver on their home soil.
“I wrote a story before the Commonwealth Games that said ‘Silver is failure’ and that’s built on the back of Australia’s absolute dominance of world netball for so long,” said Delahunty.
“The expectation was absolutely there, so as much as England played brilliantly – and there’s nothing to be taken away from them – it was absolutely perceived as a failure I think amongst the netballing community here because we’re so accustomed to winning. That sounds really arrogant but that’s just been the reality.”
As far as the Diamonds were stunned by the Roses, Delahunty does not believe that it was a decisive blow to Australia’s confidence.
“It wasn’t a fluke. England were not Steven Bradbury – they didn’t just fall over the line. They were in front and every one of the players on the court, the seven players on the court, played the game of their lives so it wasn’t an accident that England won.
“But Courtney Bruce doesn’t put in that silly little obstruction with about four seconds to go and the result is we’re going into extra time or the result is different. So as much as England deserved that win and should be very proud of it, they didn’t dismantle the Australian way of playing.”
Vitality Netball World Cup 2019
It remains to be seen whether the Diamonds can replicate their form of the past to take gold once more but whatever may happen, they already firmly have a place in the hearts and minds of Australians, Delahunty explains.
“The Diamonds have been trailblazers for women’s sport in this country.”
“They have been so successful for so long that we’re accustomed to winning gold and our expectations of them are exceptionally high.”