The Silver Ferns: A classic case of systemic failure

When something goes badly wrong there is a common tendency to try to put the blame on some individual. If nothing else this then gives all the aggrieved parties someone to take aim at. It is often blatantly unfair to do so but many people feel frustrated if they have no obvious outlet for venting their feelings.

But all too often the results of intensive inquiries into failures of various types come up with the conclusion that the cause was “systemic failure”, that is no individual was largely or clearly to blame– it was rather the system that failed. Conclusions of this sort often leave those affected frustrated and unable to get closure on the question of fault. The classic real-life examples are the CTV collapse in the Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River Mine disaster, and at an earlier time the Cave Creek disaster.

To many people, a finding of “systemic failure” is a cop-out. But in reality, it is often the unavoidable conclusion if the circumstances are thoroughly analysed. Even when particular individuals seem to be most culpable, it is often the system within which that individual operates, or which placed the individual in a position to play a critical role, that is the fundamental cause.

Which brings us to the sad case of the Silver Ferns – a team of which so much was expected in the Commonwealth Games, and which catastrophically failed to deliver. Not even able to beat Malawi for heaven’s sake! I should hasten to add that putting the tribulations of sports teams in the same category as the real-life disasters mentioned above seems frivolous to say the least – but the same principles do apply.

In the case of sports teams such as the Silver Ferns there is usually one clearly identifiable individual on which to heap the blame – the coach! And in some respects that is a fair call. It is after all the coach that has the biggest say in selections, training, tactics and substitutions during games. It has already been suggested that Janine Southby should resign as the Silver Ferns coach but Southby herself has been rather coy on the subject. This being written in the immediate aftermath of the Silver Ferns failure to win a medal of any sort, which indicates that they are now the 4th best team in the world after years of breathing down Australian necks as the clear No 2.

I can understand the coyness because Southby is very much the product of the performance management system developed by Netball New Zealand, and it is doubtful if any other NZ coach developed by that system would have done any better. The general feeling is that the best coach for the Silver Ferns would have been Noeline Tauroa, who has coached teams to the very top in both New Zealand and Australia, since being overlooked for the Silver Ferns role. However, she has a reputation for being outspoken and doing things her own way so it was unlikely that she would be a good fit with the “system” established by Netball New Zealand.



And I think this is a case of the “system” being the culprit, and the hope is that there will be an independent inquiry into what went wrong, not just an internal inquiry by Netball New Zealand. I have never been more than a spectator for netball so am hardly qualified to say what is wrong with the present system. However, some points stand out and have been already been identified by more qualified people than myself. For example:

  • The shift to a purely New Zealand based top tier netball competition, excluding players from other countries and replacing the previous cross-Tasman competition, has lowered rather than heightened standards of play.
  • Denying players who aspire to be Silver Ferns from playing in the Australian competition has had a similar deleterious effect. There is a growing contrast with other nations such as England who have benefited hugely from being exposed regularly to netball in Australia. There is no doubt that the Australian competition is demanding and produces tough players who can stand up to the pressures of top level netball. There is equally no doubt that the present Silver Ferns wilted under pressure – as exemplified by the unacceptably low shooting percentage of all the Fern shooters except Maria Folau.
  • Insisting on having a New Zealand coach and not being prepared to look more widely at getting the best possible coach, whatever country they hail from.

There are also a number of what I would call second level questions, for example about selection policy, training and tactics, but they will tend to come right if what I think are the first level issues are dealt with.

It will be interesting to see just what does happen once the dust has settled on the Games debacle.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.