Australia’s shock loss to England in netball’s gold medal game stunned Diamonds skipper Caitlin Bassett and her team. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)
Australian captain Caitlin Bassett stood waiting for the courtside interviewer to ask the first question for what must have seemed an eternity.
Bassett’s eyes were red and her cheeks puffed by exertion and emotion. The giant goal shooter looked overwrought, stunned.
It is expected — in some sports mandated — that athletes front the media in both triumph and defeat.
To share their thoughts and emotions with the public who provide their support, and in some cases their living, is the least they can do.
Australian Diamonds tweet: Thank you to our friends, family and fans for your incredible support #GoDiamonds #GreaterTogether #GC2018
But on this occasion a usually routine task seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. So much so you wished you could find a step ladder to put an arm around Bassett and guide her toward the tunnel.
Back to the sheds where she could grieve with her teammates behind closed doors.
Instead Bassett choked back the tears and answered the routine questions as best she could until, near the end, she tried to stare down her disappointment.
“It’s not failure to us and it’s not going to define us,” she said.
The months and years to come will determine just how true that statement proves.
There will be endless hours on the practice courts and subsequent tournaments where the Diamonds can demonstrate that a crushing defeat has only made them even stronger, even better.
England Netball tweet: BLOOMING MARVELLOUS!!!!! @TeamEngland are #GC2018Netball champions! #WeAreRoses #TeamEngland #TeamAndCountry
For now, however, there was the unmistakable feeling one of Australia’s outstanding national teams had not won silver, but lost gold.
It is a cruel assessment that will rankle with some. Particularly given the crushing defensive pressure exerted by a well-drilled and disciplined England.
But through the sheer excellence of their previous achievements, it is an assessment of the Diamonds’ own making.
A feature of a surprisingly uplifting Commonwealth Games was the expressions of delight on athletes who had been surprised by victory, or at least not taken medals they had expected to win for granted.
And so it was with the England netballers, perhaps the most surprising winner in any team sport.
When Helen Housby scored the winning goal as the clock expired, the English leapt into each other’s arms, somersaulted and fell to the court in joyous disbelief.
Silver Ferns tweet: SCORE UPDATE FULL TIME New Zealand 53 – Malawi 57 #GC2018 #MALvNZL #EarnTheFern
If the heroic English did not quite have the energy of the Malawi team who danced when they upset the Silver Ferns, it was only because of the incredible exertion required to upset the world champions.
We had witnessed similar scenes across these Commonwealth Games. Lawn bowls gold medallist Aaron Wilson ripping off his shirt and running around the rink was merely the most entertaining of many wonderful expressions of triumph.
But the netball final produced the most stark contrast. As the English frolicked after the greatest moment in their nation’s netball history, just metres away the Australians sat dazed and dejected.
Wondering how a tournament with a seemingly predictable plot had taken such an unexpected twist.
Soon after, Australia’s rugby sevens team would suffer a similar gut-wrenching defeat to New Zealand.
But as Olympic champions, the Australians’ disappointment will be just slightly tempered. This was not their sport’s grand final.
The Australian women’s rugby sevens team was gutted to lose to New Zealand – but the Olympics, not the Commonwealth Games, is the pinnacle of their sport. (AP: Rick Rycroft)
Plenty of clues to Diamonds’ loss
The Diamonds’ post-mortem will reveal plenty of clues. An unexpectedly jittery start and some unusually sloppy turnovers in the face of pressure from the English, and subsequently the scoreboard, were crucial. Five turnovers to nil in the last quarter hurt.
But one moment will be remembered more than any other in the four years before Australia gets a chance to make amends.
Australia led by a goal and had the ball when centre Kim Ravaillion was penalised for starting play from outside the circle.
England scored, and scored again, to complete a five goal run that proved decisive.
Games are not won or lost in single moments. Melbourne did not lose the infamous 1987 preliminary final to Hawthorn because Irishman Jim Stynes stepped across the mark and conceded a 15-metre penalty, but because three or four teammates missed easy shots for goal.
Similarly, Australia did not lose the gold medal merely because the centre made a crucial error at the most inopportune time.
Yet it will be one of Australian sport’s great “what ifs”. What if Ravaillion had kept a sneaker planted inside the circle?
In a broader sense, there is another reason Australia was responsible for its own downfall.
Rivals raise game to match Australian benchmark
In the past few years the Diamonds have raised the standard of the game with their greater professionalism, elite national competition and (relatively) better paid athletes.
Arch-rival New Zealand has failed to match Australia’s improvement and did not win a medal for the first time. But England has been inspired to lift its game.
That the Roses did so in the biggest game of all, exerting enormous pressure on a team that had cruised through the preliminaries, was a stunning accomplishment.
That her team has inspired others to greater heights will be of no immediate consolation to coach Lisa Alexander who has imbued her team with enormously high standards and, accordingly, created lofty public expectations.
Alexander never promised gold, never took it for granted. But while the Diamonds are evaluated internally on their methods and systems, inevitably all great teams are judged on their accomplishments.
Still, amid the orgy of Australian gold medals a heartbreaking defeat provided further validation of an excellent Commonwealth Games.
England’s jubilation and Australia’s utter devastation were testament to both the prize and the fierce battle that decided its destination. Only in significant events does the gulf between victory and defeat seem so vast.