Gutsy Malawi just miss Fast5 semi-final spot
For a few hours in Auckland, something pretty special beckoned in the world of netball.
Malawi, that gutsy African upstart, sat on the verge of a semi-final appearance in an international netball tournament; the Fast5 Netball World Series.
They got themselves into the position with victories over Australia on Friday, and England, 27-23 on Saturday.
They held themselves away with losses to Jamaica, 32-31, and New Zealand, 44-24.
Victory against South Africa would seal a spot for them in the semi-finals of the tournament for netball's newest, and shortest, form.
They fought, and they struggled away at Vector Arena. The crowd hollered for them. They didn't give up.
But they'd eventually fall, 48-34.
A cynic could say their victories against Australia and England were all to nought.
They weren't. This tournament was a powerful statement from one of netball's emerging nations, and a ringing endorsement of Fast5, and its ability to grow the game internationally.
"They've got some smarts out there and they certainly know what they are doing," Fast Ferns captain Laura Langman said of their African opponents.
Though not a highly ranked team in the full international test arena, netball is a big sport in Malawi, where the national team is said to as hold as much esteem as the All Blacks do in New Zealand.
Government funding has increased for the code in recent years, meaning the base could be laid for netball's next power.
"The sport of netball is just growing up," Malawi captain Caroline Mtukule said.
"[Growing up] we didn't have much funds from the government, so people mostly played mostly for fun. But now, the money is there. The government is trying to support us."
Langman said that she would like to see Malawian players given a chance to claim roster spots in the ANZ Championship next season.
Mtukule and tall, agile goal-shoot Mwai Kumwenda would be prime candidates for a move.
"It would definitely strengthen their nation," Langman said.
"I think when they come out to New Zealand, every time they play [this form of the game] or play a test series, they are getting better and better."
"The more exposure they get the stronger they will get."
Today's semi-finals will feature match-ups between New Zealand and Jamaica, and England and South Africa.
Malawi and Australia, who lost all five of their round robin matches, will clash to decide 5th and 6th place overall.
In addition to their victory over Malawi, New Zealand destroyed South Africa 52-19, completing the highest ever score in netball's shortest form, and cruised past England 47-31 to emerge from round robin play the top team.
Despite their loss to New Zealand, England should be seen as the Fast Ferns biggest contender for the Fast5 title tomorrow.
They beat Jamaica 39-28 in yesterday's first game, and showed throughout how well they had adapted well to the game's re-jigged rules; especially deadly from the three-point line.