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Commentator’s Call: 2017 Year in Review

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Netball fans will probably look back on 2017, with mixed feelings – and for many of us not just a few tears.

The year had barely begun when the game lost one of its greatest characters, with the sudden death of Tania Dalton. She was just 45, a wife and mother of three children, a businesswoman and still heavily involved in netball through coaching and commentary work with SKY TV. The outpouring of grief from across the country underlined what a loved New Zealander Tania was – and will always be.

As far as matters on the court are concerned, there has been the good, the bad and the downright perplexing.

The ANZ Premiership burst into life from the ashes of the ANZ Championship. It was dominated by the Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel, and more particularly the towering form of Jhaniele Fowler-Reid. They went through the year unbeaten. While the Northern Mystics lost to the Steel by just one goal late in the season, too often the southerners romped home by massive margins … in some 49, 36, and 24. Credit must be given to Reinga Bloxham and her side, but there’s no escaping the fact that such one-sided games do not make for exciting netball. Many will be hoping next year’s Premiership is more competitive.

The new competition also brought the formation of a new team, the Northern Stars. The Stars had their moments but were hamstrung by early season injuries, not least of those the loss of up and coming defender Holly Fowler with an ACL rupture. She’ll be back next year, and while the Stars have lost their indefatigable captain Leana de Bruin, they’ve picked up a not dissimilar character with the signing of English captain Ama Agbeze. Kayla Cullen and Grace Rasmussen are back, throw in former Silver Ferns shooters Paula Griffin and Ellen Halpenny, and new coach Kiri Wills has plenty to play with.

The Beko Netball League provided more even competition. Central overcame Mainland by just two goals in the Grand Final and the series has again done its job by throwing up a bevy of players who show much promise for the years ahead.

In fact, a number of last year’s Beko Netball League stars shone in one of the glittering moments of the year for New Zealand netball. Kiri Wills took her NZU21 side to Gabarone in Botswana with the aim of achieving a first for New Zealand – back to back wins at the World Youth Cup. They did it in style. Janine Southby’s NZU21’s stung Australia in the final in 2013, and Wills’ side did the same, coming back from being down at halftime to retain the title 60-57. A number of these players, such as Kelly Jury and Maia Wilson are already in the Silver Fern and ANZ Premiership mix, but look out for the likes of Mila Reuelu-Buchanan, and Kimiora Poi.

Another highlight was a brand new name muscling their way through to take the New Zealand Secondary Schools title. Down by one goal at halftime, Howick College powered their way through the second half to overcome St Kentigern College 33-25.

The Silver Fern score card for the year is an up and down affair. For the first time, the Netball Quad Series trophy is nestled in the Netball New Zealand trophy cabinet after the most competitive series yet. England and South Africa have made giant strides, and the stunning New Zealand victory over Australia in Invercargill had many a New Zealand fan crowing.

But not for long.

After a thrilling three test Taini Jamison Series win against England, in which we saw the best netball of the entire season, the year was set up for a thrilling Constellation Cup.

It wasn’t to be, as the Silver Ferns wilted by ever-increasing margins in the four Tests. And this is where the perplexing comes in. Selection issues, the form of a number of senior players, media outbursts over umpiring, and then the decision of Laura Langman to return to New Zealand but sit 2018 out.

You tell me, what’s going on!

That was followed by the end of year Fast5 party in Melbourne. New Zealand sent an inexperienced side – the most inexperienced side there – and got the corresponding result. One positive was Ameliaranne Ekenasio’s return to the court just a few months after the birth of her son. She was the only shooter who really fired and her form augurs well for the Te Wānanga o Raukawa Central Pulse. Also in good form was Temalisi Fakahokatau who has had a sensational 2017.

But the rest of the weekend fell a bit flat, with Hisense Arena seemingly incapable of capturing the party atmosphere that resounded around Vector Arena in years past. Pumping up the music, and encouraging the fans to let their hair down would be a start! England and Jamaica had their strongest teams there and thoroughly deserved to be in the final, and few would have been unhappy with the English victory.

The reality for the players is that there is little time for rest, and it’s easy to understand why the top players wouldn’t want to shorten their break by playing Fast5.

The good thing is there’s no time to worry about it. Janine Southby will shortly be holding the December camp ahead of announcing her Silver Fern side to play in the Northern Quad Series in January. These will be nervous times for a number of players, particularly those who failed to fire in the latter stages of the season.

The big prize is of course selection for April’s Commonwealth Games. Making the Netball Quad Series side would be a sign a player is on the right track. The players are named on December 18.