Bruised, battered and wounded – not in body, but in pride – the Diamonds hobbled into Saturday’s Commonwealth Games semi final against the host nation England. The historic loss to Jamaica cast its shadow over the upcoming match. A loss was not necessarily a concern in itself – in 2015 the Diamonds lost a pool match to New Zealand and went on to win the gold medal match against the same opposition.
But a loss to Jamaica was emblematic of a new world order. It was the first time Australia had lost to Jamaica at a major tournament. No longer are Australia and New Zealand the untouchable favourites to be feared by any and all opposition. In the not-too-distant past, a semi final against England would have been merely a formality, a mildly testing warm up to the main event of a trans-Tasman final. But in 2022, the Diamonds came face to face with the very real possibility that for the first time ever, they may not even contest the gold medal match.
The one-goal losses to England and New Zealand, in the last Commonwealth Games and World Cup finals respectively, hurt the Diamonds and stripped their trophy cabinet bare. But not being in the final to begin with enters the realms of the unheard of.
With just over 48 hours passing between their final pool match and the semi final the Diamonds had to find a way to turn that wounded pride into a match-winning performance. It could easily have gone the other way. A team that is dealt the blow of an unexpected loss can turn on each other, look for somewhere to place the blame and fall even deeper into a hole.
At some stages of their semi final match it looked like the Diamonds may have headed down that path. When they appealed to the umpire instead of chasing down a loose ball. When they got caught up in unnecessary physicality. When they worked hard to create a turnover and immediately threw it away. Any of these instances could have sent them spiralling into the bronze medal play off.
But throughout the match, alongside these moments of madness, the Diamonds kept on showing crucial flashes of calm and clarity. Captain Liz Watson found ways to steady herself, to eat up a few seconds on the clock and give her team a moment to breathe every time she had to set a penalty. Gretel Bueta was a rock in goal shooter and kept on releasing the pressure at key moments.
The relief was palpable when the final whistle blew, with Australia having secured a 60-51 nine-goal win. They had avoided disaster. It was obvious in every second of the match that this Diamonds team feared missing that gold medal match in a way that no Australian outfit before them ever had. That history-making moment of a final without the Diamonds has not eventuated in Birmingham, but for the first time it seems inevitable that at some point very soon it will happen.
The Diamonds now turn their focus to the gold medal match, having fought so hard to be there. This time they have little more than 24 hours to recover and return against an impassioned and incredibly joyful Jamaican team who will secure their highest ever Commonwealth Games placing no matter the outcome of the final.
Often when teams qualify for a final for the first time, there are concerns that they may have played their final too soon. That they threw everything they had into qualifying for the final and have nothing left to win it with. That does not appear to be the case for Jamaica. They regathered themselves after the emotion-fuelled win over Australia to dispose of New Zealand ruthlessly and clinically. Instead it is the Diamonds who will enter the match worn down from their last two encounters, with the pressure building up and pushing in on them from all sides, coming up against a team with almost nothing to lose. It is very dangerous territory.
For both teams the key will be keeping their cool. For Jamaica this means not getting blinded by the spotlight of the biggest stage they have been on, but simply playing the game that has propelled them into this final match. For Australia it means stamping the needless physicality out of their game – avoiding the cautions and dramatics that crept into the darker moments of their semi final.
Whatever the result of the final, Jamaica’s place in it is indicative of a shift in the momentum of world netball. Slowly but surely, the playing field is being levelled and history is no longer a reliable indicator of future results.