A Covid-forced lack of international competition could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Diamonds who head into their final Commonwealth Games preparation having had a rare opportunity to overhaul and finetune their game.
While the cancellation of a home Constellation Cup against New Zealand’s Silver Ferns and tour by England’s Roses were initially seen as catastrophic, the opportunity to spend an extended period in camp has allowed the side to construct its perfect game.
It’s something the Diamonds take into the Quad Series in London from January 16-20, where they will meet the Ferns, Roses and South Africa’s Proteas in their final four matches ahead of the Commonwealth Games in July-August.
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And like drivers road testing a new engine, the Diamonds hope to be firing on all cylinders in London.
Coach Stacey Marinkovich said the challenge now was to execute under pressure.
“(Our camp on the) Sunshine Coast was a great opportunity for us to actually start to really embed our on-court performance strategy and we were able to play against each other,” Marinkovich said.
“The only thing that has really shifted a bit is to be able to understand what that looks like against other styles of play and what is it that’s going to challenge us to take us away from our game plan.”
While the Diamonds have lost the last two major international tournaments – the 2019 World Cup and 2018 Commonwealth Games – going down by a single goal in each final, they remain the no.1 team in the world and have the luxury of incredible depth.
That has allowed them plenty of competitive match play in house, but Marinkovich conceded she has had to adjust the plans she had when first appointed Diamonds coach last year.
“It’s certainly been an environment where we’ve had to adapt our scheduling,” she said.
“But the content in what we’re trying to put in play has always been there, just the focus has been a lot more internalised in terms of the way in which we can prepare games wise.”
Taking on defending Commonwealth Games gold medallists England, and World Cup champions New Zealand will be a welcome challenge.
“People relish this opportunity and I think that’s something in the Diamonds, we’ve certainly (realised) – you can’t play international netball at the drop of a hat anymore,” Marinkovich said.
“So when you get this uniform, when you’re stepping out and going to hear the anthem, all those types of things, it’s an absolute privilege and that’s where the emotion and the passion for this competition is probably going to be higher than what it’s been before.
“We haven’t seen these teams in the one arena for a considerable amount of time.”
Diamonds’ Quad Series draw
All games to be broadcast on Foxtel and Kayo Freebies
January 16 – Diamonds v New Zealand, 3.15am AEDT
January 17 – Diamonds v South Africa, 1am AEDT
January 19 – Diamonds v England, 6.30am AEDT
January 20 – Final TBC
Diamonds’ huge sacrifice to help boost Games’ chances
The Diamonds are 48 hours away from taking a full squad to England for their only match preparation ahead of the Commonwealth Games.
As Covid takes a toll on sporting competitions around the country, all 15 players in Netball Australia’s squad for the quad series in London from January 16-20 recorded negative PCR tests before arriving in Sydney for a training camp.
The touring party of 26 is on track to fly out to London on Friday night.
The Omicron variant has caused havoc around the country but the Diamonds are hoping their strict protocols will allow them to travel and play in a crucial pre-Games preparation.
Players and staff gave up precious time with family and friends over the Christmas-New Year period to ensure they remained virus free before heading to pre-departure camp in Sydney. A tight bubble at the team’s hotel should ensure all are able to travel and arrive in London safely.
Netball Australia’s executive general manager of performance, Stacey West, said the touring group had limited exposure opportunities to community transmission over Christmas-New Year to ensure they would be healthy to join camp and depart with the team on January 8.
“It was about more behavioural protocols, limiting exposure opportunities to community transmission,” West said. “So online shopping orders, no shopping centres, no cinemas … grabbing takeaway foods, takeaway coffees.
“I’m really proud of the group. What an incredible period of time to ask them to do that, when it’s festive season, so I’m so proud of their commitment and dedication to that request.
“They’ve all been outstanding in meeting those recommendations.”
Players have also been undertaking rapid antigen tests, with the frequency dependent on the Covid situation in their home states, while all had a PCR test before arriving in camp.
The entire group was tested again on Wednesday to meet UK entry requirements and the camp will be locked down ahead of departure, with no external visitors allowed, individual meals to be consumed in rooms, no team meetings occurring in rooms and initial isolation until all PCR results were returned.
Things become even stricter on arrival in London, with the Diamonds existing in a bubble within a bubble — staying in a hotel that will be occupied only by teams playing in the quad series but with each country’s path crossing only when they meet on court.
Practice matches scheduled against England A and an England development side have been abandoned, with the risk of transmission of the omicron variant of Covid deemed too high in a country recording almost 220,000 new cases a day.
“Ideally you’d love to have a good practice match prior to (the tournament) but in the current conditions it just can’t be supported, there’s just too much risk,” West said.
“We absolutely need to (get to the main event), it’s the only competition experience we’ll have prior to Commonwealth Games.
“So we do need to put all of our focus on getting a quality experience in that quad series.”
As a dry run for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Birmingham in July-August, the trip will also be invaluable, even if a member of the touring group tests positive.
“England Netball have done this for a couple of years now, they’ve run their Super League competition under these kind of protocols and done that very successfully, so we’re confident that we can do this in a really safe way,” West said.
“But we can’t make it zero risk, we can’t say to everyone: ‘You won’t catch Covid’, it is with as much reduction of risk as we possibly can but Omicron is just so transmissible.”
If an athlete was to test positive, they would be unable to play but the remainder of the team could continue in the competition.
“Whatever we learn here will put us in a really good position to manage the Super Netball season and then manage that transition into the Commonwealth Games — what are our testing protocols, what are our isolation protocols, how do we move safely into the UK, we will use all of this as information gathering to put us in a good position for five months’ time.”