- by Heath Brown
Who would you pick in your all-time Australian Diamonds starting seven line-up?
Do we make Diamonds today who are as tough as they were in the 1990s?
With no weekend netball to sink my teeth into, Heath Brown out to answer those questions by diving back to the archives to study every world championship final since 1995.
Play by play and goal by goal, he re-lived many of Australia’s finest moments (though he may or may not have switched off the last few minutes a couple of times to avoid reopening emotional wounds!).
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The pandemic lockdown was the perfect time to park myself on the sofa and do what all netball tragics do when it’s offseason: roll out the VHS tapes.
(Note to the late tech bloomers like me – YouTube has most of the games in the cloud nowadays).
But rather than down a few wines, curse mistakes and ridicule umpiring calls as if the game was a live rubber and not decades old, I put my time to better use and did some player and match analysis. The aim? To pose the question: Do they make them as good and as tough as they used to?
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One way to answer that fraught question is to pick the best of the best from the last six world champs, so that I did.
As I watched the tapes, I was often asking myself whether a ’90s player could outperform a current day player or vice versa. I used my imagination to teleport players into past or present teams to get a sense for whether I thought they would sink or swim. Is the modern day netballer better than their predecessor because they are conditioned as pro athletes and therefore perform skills at an advanced level? Or has the globalisation of our sport and obsession with height left some crafts and skills behind that a previous generation player would school a current one with?
As you will see from my ‘best of the best’ list, I think it’s a mix, with some players considered timeless and ‘once in a lifetime’ types, regardless of which era they played in.
Here’s the team I would have picked in their prime as the best of any era. I’m probably showing my age, but I have definitely sprinkled the team with a lot of vintage!
GOAL SHOOTER: CAITLIN BASSETT
C-Bass has been a world beater since she was a baby string bean. In a world full of talls, she is our best tall timber by far. She has had her fair share of critics in recent years, but so has every champion in one phase of their playing career – it is what defines them.
For me the captaincy caps for Diamonds haven’t helped her, nor has the move from Lightning to Giants. Played in the right role and with the right combination around her, she cannot be stopped. I would make her get back to her old netball – park your butt mid-circle, pitch a tent, VERY occasionally get on the move to change it up and otherwise rip the ball in and go to post from mid-range.
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Whoever thought it was a good idea to get her regularly trotting outside the circle, and only shooting from right under the post needs to be clipped. Her best was when her game was simple and her confidence was sky high because of this simplicity. Let the speed, pace and court craft happen around her.
GOAL ATTACK: SHARELLE MCMAHON
Once in a blue moon a player comes along who is incomparable and that’s McMahon. She is the darling of Australian netball and our poster girl. We know she is the GOAT of our sport because, like Kobe and LeBron, fans call her her first name. It’s been 20-ish years since her first Aussie dress but she is yet to be cloned and coaches are still trying to find the next Sharelle.
She was the queen of the in-and-under contest wins that her country netball bred into her, the hard ball gets and ‘the blink and you’ll miss it’ cuts and drives to the post. Unpredictability is what stands Sharelle alone amongst any GA before or after. Reel off any current day goal attack’s name and we could all point out their go-to play. High circle drive. Baseline dodge. Brick wall screens. Drive and burst to post. Sharelle had it all in her armoury and left defenders guessing and coaches unable to plan to foil her. She is that good an athlete that you could play without a WA and still punch through second phase like clockwork!
WING ATTACK: SHELLEY O’DONNELL
I like a wing attack who is the point guard/ball carrier. They carry the ball far more often than anyone in attack, but don’t overplay a single pass beyond what they have to (and they’re not a skirt-flicking ball hog who resets the ball a hundred times to the transverse just to keep their hands on it). Shelley’s play was flat, fast and direct – no BS, just straight down to business.
She fed the ball in an era before seven-foot targets made feeding far easier and when it was a fine art form! Ball she supplied feeder to feeder or popped to a shooter made it through with touch, timing, flight and ball speed, and rarely did she waste ball.
Victoria continually produces these types of WAs, and it would be just as easy to pop a Kelsey or Madi Browne in there. Give them the ball, give them the space and watch them play that exciting brand of “catch me if you can” netball. The job as a coach with a wing attack like Shelley is simple: “Hi team, please get out of her way”. I always wondered why Jill McIntosh never yelled much from the sideline – now it all makes sense.
CENTRE: NAT VON BERTOUCH
If I like a WA who runs the ball in the front court, I love even more when they are paired with a “control room” sidekick in centre. If the WA breaks the game open, the centre is constantly plugging gaps when cracks appear, redirecting play when a change-up is needed and switching tempo when two-speed netball is required.
They are usually the one who is there to present second on a congested pass, and constantly finds ways to slot in amongst players around them rather than in their space going for the same ball. Simply, a good centre brings out the best in the weapons around them, and that was Nat.
Nat had a knack for keeping the ball runners in rhythm with long connections as needed in the back or front half. She played a wide game and kept her court open. She was also exceptionally fit, which made her brutally menacing in defence. She was of those centres who was contesting every ball and constantly slowing down the opposition with her high defensive work ethic.
WING DEFENCE: PETA SCHOLZ (NEE SQUIRE)
To stick with my labelling of the ideal player for a position, the perfect WD works powerfully in small bursts and boxes of space. They divide the back court into quadrants and plan ahead where they do and don’t want their opposition player to be. Like a kelpie, they herd their attackers into ring-fenced spaces and block access to prime land. They work just far enough off the body to back pedal to a pocket ball or forward drive into an against the flow intercept only needing a couple of steps, a glimpse and they are away. Their game is all about explosive power off a few steps and to an outside eye they are often described as a firecracker.
This was Peta Squire. She owned second phase plots on court like a landlord. She was manic to watch (in a good way) and put anything in her range against the run of play and she swooped. In attack it was the same MO. Let the GD and C run long lines and then swing in with some short space double-plays to bust through a line with a series of combo passes. With Squire you don’t need attackers backing up in long court – she’d get you to the transverse line every time.
GOAL DEFENCE: KATH HARBY-WILLIAMS
I’m a traditionalist with the GD bib. There is a personality type as well as a skill set that goes with the territory of that position. Give it to the player with some mongrel in defence to grind away at those princess GAs.
They’re the type of player who rarely helps the player up when they come off second best in a contest (some might call it unsportsmanlike, but I call it gamesmanship). They niggle, tag, scrap and hit up all in one sequence of play, and can do it play after play for full 15s and all game long as a form of constant mental and psychological warfare and torment on their player.
It looks painful to play on this player, and Kath had it in stocks. In transition to attack, she was the player who would break open a court with a long bust-up drive out of defence, and was the launcher of a traditional Australian shoulder pass that could cut through any zone put before them. Harby-Williams was an oxymoron to watch – dogged in defence and then silky and smooth as she transitioned to attack. The ultimate GD.
GOAL KEEPER: LIZ ELLIS/LAURA GEITZ
I cannot split them and please don’t ask me to. I’ll let them play rotating five-minute patches. The best two keepers ever to wear the bib globally, two amazing leaders who carried teams to victory and two epic humans who are bigger than the game and do so much for women in sport off-court.
There have been players who rival their on-court talent for glimpses, but no current day player anywhere in the world comes within cooee of these two.
Tagging a tall is a fine art. Cover the front space but hedge to also cover the back space in a split second. Confuse the space. Then hit the contest – every single one with venom. Any champion GK knows that it is the cumulative effect of pressure that sees a tall timber cave. Miss a single shot, hit a contest with a loose core or soft hands and you are done, eaten alive by Lizzie or Laura.
They also have the complete defender package, which I call ‘best at the basics’ – a tippy-toe full wingspan lean that could last for a week without falling, a knack for the box out to out-rebound a tall, and an awareness of when to turn a game by letting fly on an outside ball. They wrote the script for clutch plays and fairytale finishes.
SUBSTITUTES AND HONOURABLE MENTIONS
Shooters: Throw Cath Cox in as the ultimate long bomber because who doesn’t want to watch that, and get Gretel in as one of the hardest athletes to contain in the GA bib as she plays tall and small.
Midcourt: Carissa Dalwood for more of the same of what I said about a traditional control room centre! Then Madi or Kelsey Browne to be the ball runners!
Defence: Julie Corletto plays very similar to Harby-Williams, can also play the wing defence bib and could equally create nightmares for a GA as needed.
What do you think? Who would make your Diamonds starting seven from the past 20-30 years? Share your thoughts on Facebook or in the comments below!