With the most sought after job in international netball up for grabs, resident writer and former elite coach Heath Brown talks through the unenviable job of picking Lisa Alexander’s successor.
Lisa Alexander’s controversial departure from the Diamonds has everyone talking.
The “I won’t be re-standing for my position” script sounded very familiar to the departure announcements of a number of players who retired from national duties (some unexpectedly) in recent years.
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The same axe that Alexander sometimes swung towards players ended up swinging back in her direction, proving that off the court, netball can be as brutal and unforgiving as any sport. In fact, it shows it is more brutal than any sport, given Australia’s unparalleled success as a national side and yet near zero tolerance toward finishing second.
For almost all other Aussie teams, even our close cousins the Opals, silver is a dream. But for the Diamonds it’s practically a sackable offence to bring home a silver – if not once then definitely if you do it twice!
And that’s what makes filling Alexander’s shoes a fascinating task – for those that want it, and those tasked with making the decision.
Let’s take a look at some of the options and opportunities facing the decision makers in the coming weeks and months.
The Change-up Coach
Regardless of the team environment the departing coach left behind, change is generally the first thing to go looking for.
This is where coaching philosophy and style goes under the microscope for any new suitors. What do they bring to the program that is going to shift gears? How does their plan for the team differ from the incumbent coach?
In the case of the Diamonds, this might come from looking further than a Victorian replacement, given the top job has been in the hands of Vic coaches for longer than 15 years. Whilst the state coaching pathways don’t produce replicas, they are renowned for having similar styling up and down the pathway. Could getting back to some good old NSW flat and fast netball, or injecting some of Queensland’s tight, tough and aerial netball help us find the edge we need.
The Problem Solver
You only needed to watch the Silver Ferns’ stunning gold medal triumph to know their coaching staff had solved the much-publicised problems that had plagued them throughout the last cycle.
Not every coach can solve every problem, and teams sometimes need a specific style of coach to get the turnaround done. Various commentators have said the Diamonds have lost their nerve to execute under pressure, with noticeable chinks in their cultural armour.
The Jill McIntosh era saw Diamonds teams do “ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances” time and time again. The Norma Plummer era was all about “treating mistakes with a vengeance, not a dropped head”.
Which coaches in our pathway have a track record of closing the big games out?! And which coaches have the lists, but can’t seem to get the game won?
The NSW Swifts’ smiling assassins in Briony Akle and Anita Keelan weathered plenty of injury storms to get the job done last year, with a court and bench full of battle-ready players who, when put out there, were clearly empowered to take the game on when it was on the line. Will their two-plus years spent putting the heart and grunt back into the Swifts get them a look in?
For a long time our coaches have been prime exports to other countries’ programs. If you look around, Aussies have been masterminding against the Diamonds in all parts of the world. Whether it’s for the top job or a supporting role – could we see a Kiwi or a Pom wear the green and gold? Or maybe we can get some of the international flavour from one-time expats.
Julie Fitzgerald spent years over the ditch learning the New Zealand ways of working, and a few of our coaches have links into the UK system. Jane Woodlands-Thompson spent time in the Ferns program, as has Vicki Wilson.
Could they hold the key to knocking off New Zealand?
The assistant roles in the Diamonds program have featured some bolters plucked out over over more credentialed coaches.
Could this be a tactic invoked for the top job?
Suncorp Super Netball coaches will be the obvious choices for the job, but bring with them local favourites and a known style of coaching. At the next level of the pathway could we see a bolter trump these heirs to the throne?
Victoria’s Gerard Murphy has arguably built the country’s most powerful state league club in Geelong. Could he or a similar type of coach in other state systems get (or want) a look in?
Lisa Alexander was one of very few coaches going around who didn’t played at the absolute top level. This is likely why she surrounded herself with a bevvy of ex-players to bring to the coaches table that unteachable big game awareness and nous for what it takes to win the gold.
With Bec Bulley, Clare McMenimam, Nat von Bertouch and a raft of other ex-athletes coming through the pathway, will they get assistant nods over coaches with several years of experience again? It’s that age-old dilemma of fresh thinking versus wise experience.
If you’ve ever been in a premiership-winning side, you know that the winning culture is set by the dynamic between coach, assistants and managers, as much as players.
Their connection and complimentary approaches to coaching become the fourth combination on a court and the winning edge. I’ve always been a fan of coaches who BYO crew, with tried and tested combinations that are a winning sideline formula.
Simone McKinnins and Sharelle McMahon, Akle and Keelan or Jane Woodlands-Thompson and Dan Ryan, who were together when the Thunderbirds won their last premiership in 2013. Let’s hope Netball Australia gives the head coach free rein to self-select their offsiders.
Putting your administrative hats on, who would you send the headhunters after?
My shortlist would be Briony Akle or Simone McKinnis, but my biggest chase would be for a game-changer that can compete with the juggernaut that is Dame Noelene Taurua.
As an outsider, for me this has to be someone with a charismatic presence, an innovator, an accessible personality with a modern take on the game but with traditionalist philosophies on getting us back to the Aussie way.
Many may not know that Sue Gaudian coached Australian under-age sides before getting behind the microphone. She is one of the only coaches I can think of that fits that bill. And if she won’t hang up the mic, get the woman a supporting role!
Our Diamonds coaching line needs a mover and shaker, and she might just fit the bill.
Heath Brown is a former Australian Men’s team captain and elite level coach in both Victoria and South Australia, who now specialises in corporate innovation and leadership.