Diamonds’ strength in depth hints at Netball World Cup favouritism

Gretel Bueta. Ash Brazill. Liz Watson. Steph Wood. The names variously missing from recent team sheets in Australia’s back-to-back Test series wins have been conspicuous, but the absent stars are also the reason Stacey Marinkovich’s side should be favourites for next year’s World Cup in Cape Town.

The Diamonds – who were in the unfamiliar position of being trophy-less in March last year – have collected titles against New Zealand and England without several of their genuine star players, reinforcing the strength in depth of their squad.

A squad mentality is a shift for the national side, given Australia have historically had a killer starting seven, with filler used to top up as needed, despite protestations to the contrary.

The new approach was on show at this year’s Commonwealth Games, where the Diamonds took gold by exploiting different combinations in key matches and “moments”, as Marinkovich likes to say, but it is now embedded in the “brand” – another favourite axiom of the coach. And it’s a scary prospect for opposition sides.

Marinkovich’s first “go without moment” was not of her choosing. Bueta, arguably the best player in the world, withdrew from the four-Test Constellation Cup series against the Silver Ferns just a week before it was to start in early October, after announcing her pregnancy.

While the Diamonds lost the first two legs on the other side of the Tasman Sea by eight and four goals respectively, they recovered to take the final two and the trophy in Australia, winning 62-47 and 57-53 thanks to two solid performances from international rookie Sophie Garbin. Garbin had replaced Bueta in the 14-woman squad, then game-day 12, and then starting seven.

It is unclear whether Bueta will be back for the World Cup – to be held in Africa for the first time in its 60-year history from late July – but other shooters, including Cara Koenen, who finished with 29/31 against England on Sunday night, and Kiera Austin stood up in the series. Suddenly Bueta doesn’t seem quite so irreplaceable.

The world No 1 team has also been without midcourt dynamo Brazill, the AFLW player who made herself unavailable for both series to spend time with her family.

Brazill was pivotal in Birmingham but as with the attack end, several would-be replacements stepped into the breach. In particular, Amy Parmenter staked her claim for the wing defence bib with strong performances across both series. She was MVP in Sunday’s 56-48 win at Sydney’s Qudos Bank arena, but Jamie-Lee Price and Kate Moloney were equally impressive at times.

In a move that raised eyebrows when announced in August, captain and vice-captain Watson and Wood were both omitted from the squad for the three-Test series against England, who missed out on a Commonwealth medal on home soil after winning gold in 2018.

Resting two of the team’s on-court leaders – the starting wing attack and goal attack – for a series against England could have prompted accusations of folly, or even arrogance. It appears it was neither.

With series captain Paige Hadley all-but flawless in the first two Tests, Price showed a maturity that has been long coming and the attack end hummed despite the absence of Bueta, with Donnell Wallam enjoying a spectacular debut in the first Test despite the outside noise from the Hancock sponsorship deal.

Rather, this was Marinkovich testing the depth of her squad, and backed by belief.

On Sunday night, Marinkovich talked about her approach. “This is what we wanted to do. We want to gather as much information as we can about the players,” she said.

“It’s a great position to see our depth, players taking the court, grabbing their opportunities, seeing players being able to impact from the bench. That’s what we’ve got to be able to do for a World Cup. You can’t just rely on one thing. You have to be able to have all your bases covered.”

She said her players had “really embraced being a squad”.

“They know they have to play a particular role at different times and whether that’s to start, whether that’s to finish out a game, to come on, come off, or to make the training environment as intense as we can. It’s very exciting what the girls are doing.

“I think any selection for me at this point is difficult, across some multiple positions … all positions really. We’ve got to look at an overall dynamic and keep weighing that up. [There is still] a bit of time until we have to select but it’s great to have so many people putting their hands up.”