Netball

In the world of sporting KPIs, those of Stacey Marinkovich, the new coach of the Australian Diamonds netball team, couldn’t be more clear – wrest back the game’s most coveted trophies from England and New Zealand. By Linda Pearce.

Stacey Marinkovich’s title fight

Stacey Marinkovich instructs her West Coast Fever charges during the team’s 2020 Super Netball Grand Final match against the Melbourne Vixens last October.
Credit: Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images

In the hours following the surprise announcement of the West Coast Fever’s Stacey Marinkovich as head coach of the Australian Diamonds, eyebrows were raised and questions asked. Lots of them – including some, on Nine’s live Super Netball broadcast from Queensland that afternoon, by two of the sport’s greats.

Catherine Cox, a dual world champion and the nation’s third-most capped player, put to the rather modestly credentialed Marinkovich that “in terms of success, [you] haven’t tasted much of that as a player yourself, or a coach, so how do you then go and find that and chase that with the Diamonds?” The game’s highest-profile figure, former captain Liz Ellis, was slightly gentler but no less direct. “Stacey, there’ll be people asking, ‘Why not someone who’s worn the gold dress before?’ What do you say to that?”

Even for the many who had queried the quality of Marinkovich’s CV, particularly in comparison with the Melbourne Vixens’ vastly more experienced and decorated Simone McKinnis, it made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. Yet Marinkovich calmly said all the right things about being aware of the calibre of those she beat for the plum post, stressed her ability to empower and bring out the best in people through collaboration and a different skill set, and declared her respect for the legacy left by those who had gone before.

Almost five months on, the personable 39-year-old remains diplomatic when reminded of the exchange. “It’s something that I guess you’re not always fully prepared for, but the reality is that what they said was true: I hadn’t played for Australia, and there was a lot of talk around other candidates who were putting their hand up for the position, so for me it’s to own that and accept that everyone has an opinion and a perception,” says Marinkovich, who says she had “gone under the radar” during the recruitment process.

“Obviously I understood that there would be mixed emotions with my appointment and that’s what sport’s all about, and it’s up to me to be able to demonstrate what I can do with the team, and to take people on the journey and take them on my journey,” she says, admitting to having both an inner confidence and a thick skin. “I know I have a huge amount of support around me and some really great people that are going to help build this program … So yeah, at times it’s a bit up and down, but I also respect the honesty that comes from Coxy and Liz. I know they’re hugely passionate, and all they want to do is see the Diamonds be successful, and that’s what I’ve been tasked, too.”

The definition of success, of course, depends on who’s measuring, as former head coach Lisa Alexander found after finishing the last bruising international cycle with a pair of inadequate silver medals from the Commonwealth Games and World Cup. Few positions in Australian sport carry greater expectation or intolerance for second-best – note the Diamonds’ record of 11 world titles won or shared from the 15 contested – and dictates that Marinkovich’s KPIs are gold or more gold.

“Yeah, absolutely, and that’s the vision,” she admits, having taken the West Coast Fever to two national league grand finals in the past three seasons, and directed the bronze medal Fast5 campaign at the 2017 World Series. One suspects there will henceforth be less talk about the No. 1 ranking (still held) and more about the two benchmark titles (not). “We want to win the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games; that’s the driver and the ranking takes care of itself … Both myself and the players are very clear that that’s what we’re building towards.”

Marinkovich accepts that “you take this job on knowing that there’s no second place”. Not with the proud history and legacy of the Diamonds. Not even during what has recently become a more competitive environment. “We’re going to have to earn every bit of our successes,” she says, “because the world of netball has evolved and obviously all the trophies are sitting with different countries at the moment and we have to work really hard to get those back.”

Indeed, with Super Netball’s unlimited import rule having helped to raise the standard by exposing a large number of international players to increased elite competition and training, the challengers have not just been gathering at the drawbridge, they have stormed the castle and plundered the jewels. Third-ranked England had their major breakthrough at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The following year, old foe New Zealand ended the Diamonds’ triumphant World Cup run stretching back to 2007. The fact the margin was a single goal in both finals was as painful as, ultimately, it was irrelevant.

The squeeze on domestic court-time for locals that began in the shooting circle with the likes of imports Romelda Aiken, Mwai Kumwenda and Jhaniele Fowler has since spread to the defensive end, leaving midcourters to make up half the Diamonds’ travelling party for Marinkovich’s Test debut in the delayed Constellation Cup in New Zealand. Captain and goal shooter Caitlin Bassett, unsuited to the new two-point super shot rule and frustrated by a lack of court-time, quit the Giants to this year play for Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic in the New Zealand domestic league.

Marinkovich is cautious when asked whether her former teammate was harshly treated, and also fails to bite at the follow-up suggestion that the situation is far from ideal. “ ‘Bass’ is in a different stage in her career and firstly she has to make a decision that’s going to put her in the best frame of mind and environment in which she feels she’s going to excel … I just think when a player is balanced and happy and can see what they’re trying to achieve, then they’re going to produce their best netball. So at this point in time New Zealand is that place for her. But she still … needs to be able to connect and produce the standard that we require when she comes into camp.”

The first squad-gathering with the new national coach was in Noosa following the Fever’s narrow Super Netball grand final loss to the Vixens. The adopted West Australian – as Stacey Rosman, she joined the Perth Orioles from the Queensland Firebirds in 2002 – will retain both jobs in 2021 before focusing solely on the national program. Greater transparency and clarity will, Marinkovich says, help guard against suggestions of bias around the selection table where, importantly, hers is not the only chair.

The Noosa camp was unusual in that, after a demanding and condensed national league season, it was not performance-based. Team-building and familiarisation were themes, as Marinkovich laid the cultural foundations, met with players one on one and noticed how much more relaxed and trusting they became as the days passed. And among the souvenir photos of river cruises, surfing lessons and hikes through the national park was one featuring her one-year-old son, Matthew, at dinner on the final night.

“I have the best picture of him where the Diamonds girls were at this big table, and he’s sitting in his high chair at the head of the table just like the kingpin,” says Marinkovich, laughing. “I used to be the coach that left your personal life at the door, and when you came in you had to be this professionally focused person. But I guess having Matthew has opened my eyes to a different way of involving him, and also the way in which the girls embrace family; it’s amazing what kids can do around a team. I find the balance, and he’s not always in the environment – he’s certainly not at training and things like that – but there’s times and places where it does actually benefit the program.”

Marinkovich considers her holistic approach and connection with players key attributes, while understanding the importance of linking what occurs inside the tent with the broader community and commercial partners to sell the game. “We want to have that footprint in the Australian community, and want to inspire and empower young women,” she says. Then there’s the game plan, of course, where the fit, fast, skilled fundamentals will be complemented with variation and versatility and honed gradually ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Taking on New Zealand for the Constellation Cup is next, though, with the four Tests now scheduled for March 2-7. Marinkovich asked the Diamonds to return in the best shape possible after their brief off-season, and keep their skills rust-free, in order to build cohesion early. “We’ll keep it quite simple at the beginning. I think we need to get the connection first before we start to try and be too tricky in what we’re trying to put out there strategically.”

There will be time for that, and whatever the public sentiment over her elevation, the reaction that had the greatest impact arrived more privately. Former Diamonds coaches such as Wilma Shakespear, Joyce Brown, Jill McIntosh, Norma Plummer and Alexander all sent messages of congratulations and support. “When you look at your phone and you see those names come up, you think, ‘That’s quite a group of people to be associated with’, so that was probably one of the moments where I went, ‘Wow, that was pretty exciting,’ ” says the 15th member of an exclusive club.

One of the previous 14, who shall remain nameless, commented as all those eyebrows were being raised by the appointment that while others may have had superior credentials on paper, everyone should just relax, because Marinkovich would do a fine job. No question. The awkward, televised kind, of course, having already been asked.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "Ain’t no second prize".

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Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.