Quad Series a litmus test for Diamonds ahead of Commonwealth Games

The Diamonds were impressive in the Quad Series earlier in the year, but will face a stern test in August. Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Australia open their Quad Series defence against England on Saturday, and Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander says her young side will use the tournament as a yardstick for next year's Commonwealth Games.

Preparing for Tests against England, New Zealand and South Africa, Alexander told espnW that Australia's preparation hac been focused on the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, where the Diamonds will face Northern Ireland, Barbados, Fiji, South Africa and Jamaica in the pool rounds before potentially taking on trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand as they seek to defend their 2014 Gold Medal from Glasgow.

"Yes, definitely [we're focused on the Commonwealth Games]. Test series are just that -- they're tests. You have the ability to test yourselves out and that's what these are designed for," Alexander told espnW. "They're designed to test yourself that you're ready for the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. We're going to use them in their truest form, but also not being silly about it, just using them strategically."

For the playing group, it will be a chance to test out new formations and also a time to showcase a fledgling approach Alexander has introduced.

Entering camp in late July, Alexander purposely pushed the players beyond their comfort zones in order to change the way they approached the game.

"It's very new because they've been used to having 10 players on the bench and a lot of them have played in sevens that haven't changed very much, whereas I've got to change that mindset because we're preparing for a tournament that is extraordinarily tough," Alexander said.

"You've got 12 world-class teams at the Commonwealth Games, so you've got to have the ability to change your line-up according to your opposition {and] also to get through the week. Being able to play our 12 is critically important to us, so therefore you will see more changes than normal. The fact that we have 12 players is different because Super Netball has 10, and the rules are different. We don't have timeouts, so we need to make sure that we prepare our players as if they can coach themselves out on court."

Alexander is aware the Diamonds' new approach may be a big change to the purist ideals of netball.

"They'll be used to a certain way of netball playing and a lot of that in test series is usually you put a top seven out and you leave that seven out on court," she said. "But we just cannot afford to do that, we've got to use this time to change up our line-ups and our players will be ready for that, because that's what we've been preparing for.

"We need to really test combinations and see what's going to work for us so that we can really work towards making sure we win that gold medal next year on the Gold Coast because it's our home Commonwealth Games. It's extraordinarily important to us to back up a Gold Medal win in Glasgow and also to take on the challenge of all the countries that are coming.

"New Zealand will be extremely strong, as will England, and also Jamaica and all the 12 teams who are there competing. Teams like Northern Ireland: four years ago we played them in a practice match before a series against England and to see them come forward and now be in the top 12 in the world is a great credit to them."

Preparations hit a speed bump just weeks out from the Quad Series with incumbent captain and experienced defender Sharni Layton ruled out through exhaustion, adding further pressure to an already inexperienced side.

"It hasn't been ideal with Sharni [Layton] having to drop out of the team and having to make shuffles up; that's less than ideal but that's just what you have to deal with in a national program," Alexander told espnW.

"You're going to get injuries, you're going to have things crop up that you're going to have to make the best of. We've got a really strong defence line-up in any case and we can't wait to let those young players get out on court and show what they've got."

One of those young players is Melbourne Vixens keeper Emily Mannix who was called up to the squad as Layton's replacement and joins fellow debutant Courtney Bruce in a young defensive end which also includes April Brandley (11 caps) and Jo Weston (three caps).

"They do [have big shoes to fill], but they've got their own shoes," Alexander said. "That's what I try to tell them, I'm not looking for another Sharni, I'm looking for the best version of Emily, the best version of Courtney and the best version of our defence end that we could ever have. We need to rewrite our own history and we need to make a stamp on it that says this is going to be the best defensive combination ever in our history."

Regularly inviting coaches and players from other sporting codes to training sessions, such as the Wallabies and Melbourne Storm, Alexander frequently looks outside netball to help strengthen her coaching knowledge and present the Diamonds with new ideas.

"I'm a very avid AFL watcher, being brought up on Australian Rules football since I was a little girl and so I have a close affinity for the team that I barrack for, which is Hawthorn," the World Cup-winning coach said.

"I've been really impressed and have admired how they have brought their young players in this year, I think that's been a real credit to Alistair Clarkson and also the Hawthorn football club and how well they've done that," she said.

"It's not been easy, they've had to manage expectations of the fans, but they've done that in a really legitimate and authentic way and whilst also celebrating past champions -- Sam Mitchell, and Luke Hodge -- who've been such great stalwarts for the clubs and have provided so much high performance themselves.

"Having Luke Hodge adding to the experience to all of those young defenders, it just really reminds me as a coach of how important that is. I brought Julie Corletto back into our fold the last couple of sessions, working with our defenders and you just cannot buy that sort of experience she has and it was terrific to see her there at training."

Holders of every major trophy, including the World Cup and Commonwealth Games Gold, the Diamonds have earned their title as the best side in the world, but Alexander ruled out any risk of complacency ahead of next year's Games.

"You improve by continuous change any way, because what confronts us all the time is new opposition, we have new players that we're continually regenerating," she said.

"The last two years has really been a process of getting our next group together and it's an ongoing process, you've always got to remind yourself to go back to basics. For us, it's doing the things the Diamonds do really well, which is putting our basic skills under pressure and being able to execute where it counts. And that takes a lot practice and that's what we've been doing this past three weeks, particularly on court since the camp, just really working on our basics, making them as good as we can make them ready for this challenge of the Quad Series."

Defeating England by just one goal in their final Quad Series clash earlier this year, Alexander is expecting another tight match-up, especially after the success of the inaugural Super Netball season which saw several England stars play across Australia.

"It's going to be very, very tight. England are very strong, they have a lot of experience, they're very experienced in their defence end particularly. Helen Housby and Jo Harten have now established themselves as world-class goalers in Super Netball; the centre court is also very experienced, so we've got a very tough time against England. It's going to be an absolute cracking Test match."