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Constellation Cup: from zero to national hero

Zero to national hero. That’s the sporting metamorphosis Australian Diamond shooter Caitlin Bassett may experience in the four-Test Constellation Cup in New Zealand beginning Tuesday.

By Erin Delahunty

NETBALL AUSTRALIA: NWC2019 Australia vs New Zealand. July 18, 2019. M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool, England, United Kingdom. Photo: Narelle Spangher, Netball Australia
The Constellation Cup will see fierce rivals Australia and New Zealand face off for the first time in over a year. Photo: Narelle Spangher, Netball Australia

The series, the first between the Aussies and their traditional rival the Silver Ferns since October 2019, gives Bassett a chance to not-so-gently remind the world she’s still one of the game’s best after what can only be described as an annus horribilis in 2020.

The two-time world champion and arguably one of the most recognisable netballers globally was relegated to the bench for most of last year’s condensed Super Netball season, seemingly courtesy of the league’s contentious two-goal ‘super shot’, which made her close-range game style all-but redundant.

With Giants coach Julie Fitzgerald clearly favouring longer-range shooters Jo Harten and Kiera Austin, Bassett played just one full 60-minute game across the two-month season. She was often shown on the television broadcast riding an exercise bike courtside, in what was unkindly labelled the ‘Tour de Bass’. 

At season’s end, the 32-year-old walked away from her Giants contract a year early and announced she’d signed for NZ league side the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic.

And just last week, the 193cm West Australian—who won back-to-back titles with Sunshine Coast Lightning in 2017 and 2018 and is only the fifth Diamond to play 100 Tests—was dumped as national captain in favour of an experimental rotation system under new coach Stacey Marinkovich.

Marinkovich, a controversial choice given she’s never won an elite trophy, surprised many when she announced “all athletes within the squad will have the opportunity to lead the team, allowing the new coaching panel and Netball Australia to explore and maximise the group’s leadership potential.” A lot of words to say Bassett is no longer captain.

While all players are said to be onboard with the unconventional approach, and outwardly Bassett will no doubt be focused on helping the side win its eighth consecutive Constellation Cup–the Ferns have only won it once, in 2012–the prospect of personal and public redemption must appeal on some level.

Bassett knows better than anyone the ‘super shot’—a gimmick she likened to lingerie football when it was announced—is only employed in the Australian league and will therefore play no part in the series. That makes her one of the Ferns’ biggest tactical headaches because of her size, strength on the hold and accuracy.

A proven match-winner, she’s a lock to start at goal shooter, but will most likely work with a changing roster of goal attacks across the four Tests, given the absence of Steph Wood, who is recovering from off-season knee surgery, and Gretel Bueta, who only a few days ago resumed club training in Queensland after the birth of her son in January. The ex-captain also lost her long-term understudy in Caitlin Thwaites to retirement.

Bassett’s former Giants teammate, the uncapped 23-year-old Austin, is the obvious choice for the GA bib, but it’s curious to note the pair played very few minutes together last season. Just over ten minutes in total, in fact. In season 2019, they only paired in a handful of matches, and never for more than a quarter. So while they know each other well, it’s an untested partnership at international level.

The 2020 Super Netball season was one to forget for Caitlin Bassett. Image: Suncorp Super Netball
The 2020 Super Netball season was one to forget for Caitlin Bassett. Image: Suncorp Super Netball

The smarts and physicality of the Ferns’ defence, even without retired star Casey Kopua, may bother Austin. But on the flip side, Bassett won’t have to contend with the Ferns’ best size match for her, 192cm Kelly Jury, who didn’t meet the Ferns’ fitness benchmark, so wasn’t eligible for selection. 

Just like Austin, all the other GA options are uncapped. They include versatile Swift Sophie Garbin and the breakthrough star of 2020, 21-year-old Tippah Dwan, who is a tour invitee. Bassett’s old Lightning teammate Cara Koenen, who will turn 25 on tour, can play at goal attack, but is more comfortable at shooter.

Whichever rookie she works with in the much-anticipated series, the 100-Test veteran will be the Diamonds’ main avenue to goal. It’s a fact not lost on Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua, who coached her at Lightning.

“In my eyes, Caitlin is a world-class shooter and [on] the international scene, which is what she’s used to, she does that very well and she does her job,” Taurua told stuff.co.nz last week.

“She will be a nemesis for us like normal. She’ll be shooting 40-plus goals like normal and she’s hard to stop underneath that post. I assume she will get out there and do her job as she has all her time for the Diamonds. She’s going to do her best, which is world-class.”

Bassett will also have silver service from a stacked midcourt. From established names Liz Watson, Gabi Simpson and Paige Hadley to recent additions Jamie-Lee Price, Kate Moloney and Jess Anstiss and newbies Maddy Proud and Verity Charles, Marinkovich is spoiled for choice.

With her eyes firmly on next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the World Cup in Cape Town a year later, Marinkovich will be looking for the best combinations through the midcourt to work with a yet-to-be-set attack line.

In defence, Jo Weston and Courtney Bruce will be given time to build their growing partnership, but Kim Jenner, Sarah Klau and invitee Tara Hinchliffe are handy spares. Emily Mannix missed the squad because of hip surgery in the off-season.

Covid restrictions mean all four Tests are to be played in New Zealand–on March 2 and 3 in Christchurch, and Tauranga on March 6 and 7–meaning the Diamonds are currently in quarantine, an obvious disadvantage.

In New Zealand, the pressure is on the Ferns to beat this inconvenienced and relatively inexperienced squad, but it’s also New Zealand’s first series against the Diamonds without “fossils” Kopua, Maria Folau, Katrina Rore and Laura Langman–who took more than 500 Tests of experience with them when they retired. How that generational change is managed will prove instructive.

As will the performance of one CBass.

Constellation Cup 2021: The details

  • Tuesday, March 2, 5pm (AEST), Christchurch Arena
  • Wednesday, March 3, 5pm (AEST), Christchurch Arena
  • Saturday, March 6, 2pm (AEST), Trustpower Baypark, Tauranga
  • Sunday March 7, 1pm (AEST), Trustpower Baypark, Tauranga

*All matches will be broadcast live on Nine, 9Gem and the Netball Live app.

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