Australia coach Stacey Marinkovich is netball’s great number-cruncher, someone who pores over complex statistics and makes data-driven decisions. But heading into a four-Test Quad Series in London this weekend – which will bring the Diamonds’ total international preparation for this year’s Commonwealth Games to just eight games in two years – the equation for Marinkovich is simple.
She has 240 minutes of pressure cooker match-play against England, New Zealand, and South Africa to get her new-look, relatively inexperienced side firing and at least signalling an intention to reclaim three lost crowns – their Commonwealth and World Cup titles and the Constellation Cup.
Following strict Covid protocols which began with the Australians effectively locking down from Christmas onwards, the Diamonds will take on the world champion Ferns, reigning Commonwealth gold medallist Roses and the Proteas at Copper Box Arena across four days, before play-offs on Thursday morning, Australian time.
Liz Watson, who missed the 2021 Super Netball season after foot surgery, will be the solo captain for the first official time, after a controversial rotation system was used in Marinkovich’s only other outing as coach, in last year’s failed Constellation Cup.
The woman Watson shared the captaincy with, veteran shooter Caitlin Bassett, did not make this team and looks to be finished at all levels of the game after struggling with knees injuries and failing to get a domestic contract for 2022.
The return of Watson, widely regarded as the world’s best midcourter and the absence of Bassett – along with the paucity of Games preparation and the fact Australia have the least experienced squad with a combined 279 Test caps – makes this Quad Series one of the most keenly anticipated on record from a Diamonds perspective.
Marinkovich is pragmatic about the situation her side find themselves in, primarily due to Covid. “It is what it is,” she said. “But this is a good chance for us to see where we’re actually at [given the lack of Tests]. I have great confidence that the program, and the way the girls are going about their time together, is really focusing on the way which we want to play.
“When we go away, the focus is always to be successful and get results, but we know that there are a number of steps we have to take to do that, and we need to understand what our performance actually looks like win, lose or draw. After these outings against some international teams, we can then forward plan for the Games and bridge any gaps, but also continue to push and grow.”
Watson, who Marinkovich described as “ready and raring to go” after close to 12 months on the sidelines, said she has confidence in her young side, despite very few Test minutes together. “We have only had one tour all together, but we all play in such an elite competition in Super Netball every week, so we have the experience, we have leadership,” she said.
The Bassett-less shooting line – which includes vice-captain Steph Wood, Gretel Bueta, who is returning to the world stage after giving birth last year, freshly-minted Diamonds Cara Koenan and Sophie Garbin, and potential debutant Sophie Dwyer – is exciting and versatile.
Watson said the attackers, along with the rest of the team which includes a mix of the established and unfamiliar, share a common goal. “We do feel the responsibility to get those gold medals back,” she said.
Former Rose and current Scotland head coach Tamsin Greenway said while a settled England should go into the series as favourites having beaten the Ferns and world number four Jamacia recently, Australia should not be underestimated.
“You look down the list of names and it’s all class,” Greenway said. “They play in the best competition in the world and they’re quality players with real spark. It’s not panic stations for the Diamonds at all.
“Stacey has just got to be brave this series, cut out the outside noise and find her starting seven. I think she’s running out of time to not do that. Win or loss – and I know that’s still a strange concept for Aussie fans – the team itself needs to come away from this series with a clear idea of how it’s going to play, its identity.”
Former Diamonds captain Liz Ellis, meanwhile, said Marinkovich needs to get buy-in for her game plan and not be blinded by stats.
“Internationally, you’ve got to have a feel for the game and go with your instinct. I think this is the time for her to prove that, while yes, she’s excellent at data and numbers and a certain management style, that she’s also got a real gut feel and can make decisions based on what’s happening in front of her.”