The SPAR Proteas may have gone down fighting, 68-43, to world netball champions the Australian Diamonds in the opening match of the Netball Quad Series in Auckland today, but their coach Norma Plummer was “absolutely delighted” with the improvement in their performance.

Although the Australians gave a clinical display of their superior speed and experience in the first match of a blockbuster doubleheader, the South African side showed tenacity and skill which earned the biggest cheers from the crowd of 4700 at Vector Arena.

And the SPAR Proteas were happy to have reduced the difference between themselves and the world No. 1 side by 10 goals since their last meeting at last year’s world championships.

“I was really quite delighted, from world champs till now, with the improvement I can see, and the commitment and the effort,” Plummer said. “I’m absolutely rapt, with the short amount of time I get to spend with these girls, how they competed out there. It’s a real feather in their cap.

“We want to be defined as a team that’s going to take it up to the top sides, and we’re only going to learn by actually being in this competition. So we have to learn about how much tougher and how much more contesting we have to do, and how much more consistency we have to have.

“It was great sitting there watching it, because I could see the mistake coming before it came. But I knew they were having a real crack at it and I was delighted in that.”

The SPAR Proteas vice-captain Karla Mostert was also heartened by the inroads her team has made since last playing the Australians.

“We are very happy with where we are going. The more we get this kind of exposure, the better we are going to get. We can only take it step for step, game for game and just get better every time,”  she said. “We really enjoyed it out there.

Although Australia leapt out to a 7-2 lead early in the opening quarter, the SPAR Proteas struck back to score the next three with goal defence Mostert pouring the pressure on the Australian goal circle.

The SPAR Proteas continued to drive through court to shooters Lenize Potgieter and Lindie Lombard, but the Diamonds’ pace began to tell and the world champions led 19-10 at the first break.

The Auckland crowd appreciated any bursts of speed and skill from the South African attack, and their commitment on defence was also recognised.

With the scoreline 36-20 going into the third quarter, the SPAR Proteas returned to the court with a new intensity, driven by their experienced midcourt leaders Bongi Msomi and Erin Burger, and managed to stay goal for goal with the world No. 1 side for much of the 15 minutes.

The introduction of Renske Stolz at goal attack was also beneficial to the SPAR Proteas, as she scored some telling goals from distance.  Stolz’ previous international experience was 10 minutes against Wales earlier this year, so Plummer applauded her on her “debut” against one of the toughest teams in the world.

Potgieter’s confidence under the hoop also grew, and she finished the game with an impressive 31 shots from 38 attempts.

Although the Australians went up to a new gear for the final spell, building on their 50-30 lead, the Proteas never gave up.  Goal keep Phumza Maweni became more competitive against the veteran Australian shooters as the game went on, also earning Plummer’s praise.

Australian Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander was pleased with her side’s foundation-building performance, but was also impressed with the SPAR Proteas’ performance.

“They have certainly improved, as I predicted they would. They will continue to get better the more they get experience from this series,” she said.

The SPAR Proteas will now head to the central North Island city of Hamilton to play the world’s second ranked side, the Silver Ferns, on Wednesday.    The Silver Ferns beat the English Roses in the second test of the Auckland blockbuster, the score is 65-39 with Silver Ferns (New Zealand) beating England.