Lisa Alexander formed a close bond with many of the Diamonds over her long tenure. (AAP: Craig Golding)
From a distance, coaching the Australian netball team seems like a nice little earner.
The vast pool of local talent is now match hardened in the world’s strongest domestic league and the game’s limited frontiers ensure likely passage to at least the semi-finals of every major international tournament.
So put your best seven on the court then sit back and wait to sing about just how damn bloody girt Australia is by sea at the presentation ceremony, right?
The reality is now much tougher as the sacking of the long-time and highly respected Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander this week demonstrated.
If anything, the termination of Alexander’s contract almost a year before it was due to expire is a consequence of the vast expectations she created during a period in which the national team, and the game itself, more than held its own in the now intensely competitive market for women’s sport.
A number of past and present stars were visibly emotional at Alexander’s retirement announcement. (AAP: James Ross)
Throughout Alexander’s almost decade-long reign, she did not accept her team would be merely one of three or four regular contenders for netball’s greatest prizes, the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games gold medal.
Rather than pose the question of whether the Diamonds were good enough to win a tournament in any given year, or measure them against their previous achievements, she instead explored the idea of how good they could be.
Alexander augmented her own ideas with the best practices from outside netball, including — somewhat ironically given netball’s intense trans-Tasman rivalry — those of the All Blacks, whose methods and philosophy she greatly admired.
A sports nut regularly seen at AFL and NRL games rugged up in a Hawthorn or Melbourne Storm scarf, Alexander became a peer and confidante of the leading national and domestic coaches from an array of sports.
As a result of her determination to explore the depths of her team’s talent, the Diamonds for a time separated themselves from their rivals, as demonstrated by their convincing victories at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2015 World Cup.
Much in the manner the Australian women’s cricket team jumped their rivals as a result of the significant investment by Cricket Australia or how the Hockeyroos rose well above the pack many years ago under the tutelage of their intensely driven coach, Ric Charlesworth.
At the same time, Alexander has been an enthusiastic and, if you happened to misrepresent netball or unfairly omit it from the conversation, sometimes ferocious champion for her sport.
@CoachLisaA: Only issue I have Nike is that there is NO Netball!!!! What about England
If there was an opportunity to promote or grow the game in Adelaide or Africa, Alexander made the trip. If there was a question about her methods or a squad member’s struggles, she would front up to answer it.
The result was that Alexander gained a higher profile than her predecessors and even some of her star players, not through any attempt at self-promotion but because of her advocacy of the game and the excellent results she had helped attain.
But with achievement inevitably came elevated, even outsized, expectations.
Alexander made the Diamonds too good for her own good
Australia entered the 2018 Commonwealth Games firm favourites and lost a nail-biting final 52-51 to an England team that had invested heavily ahead of the home 2019 World Cup.
That disappointment only compounded the expectations of the Diamonds at that World Cup, where a final defeat to arch-enemy the Silver Ferns by that same slim but defining 52-51 score was a shattering blow for Alexander.
The final at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was supposed to be a coronation for the Diamonds. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)
For netball insiders, defeat to New Zealand was not quite as unexpected as it seemed — the Silver Ferns had endured a period of vast underachievement caused by poor coaching appointments and a ban on experienced players still competing in what had become an exclusively Australian Super Netball league.
New Kiwi coach Noeline Taurua had brought some of the Silver Ferns’ most experienced players back to the fold and, with the knowledge and experience gained coaching in Australia’s domestic competition, essentially ambushed the Diamonds at the World Cup.
Inevitably, Alexander suffered unflattering comparisons with Taurua. Public criticism from some in the media, including influential former Australian captain Liz Ellis, undoubtedly loosened her grip on the job.
Alexander has always had a public profile, but it never seemed to be for self-serving reasons. (AAP/SNPA: Martin Hunter)
This is not to suggest Ellis actively agitated for Alexander’s replacement, but the utterances of the most iconic and influential figure in the sport would not have fallen on deaf ears, even as the Diamonds beat New Zealand to win a seventh straight Constellation Cup a few months after the World Cup.
Alexander might consider herself a victim of both the inflated expectations created during the vastly successful first half of her tenure and also of the unusually large profile she gained.
Should the Australian women’s cricket team fail to win the Twenty20 World Cup — or not even make the final and fill the MCG — their under-the-radar coach Matthew Mott will be down the pecking order when the finger of blame is pointed.
It will be those on the field, including household names like Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy who are most heavily scrutinised.
Alexander’s legacy should provide lasting consolation. This does not merely relate to the competition medals and an impressive 83-19 winning record, but the manner in which she helped professionalise the sport and raised the bar for her own team and its competitors.
There is speculation Alexander’s successor will be permitted to combine a club job with national duties, something that might allow more game-day experience than the current standalone position.
While some well-credentialed applicants will pledge to take the Diamonds a step further at the next Commonwealth Games and World Cup, there will be few greater advocates for the sport than the woman they replace.
Lisa Alexander will be a panellist on Offsiders this Sunday at 10:00am.