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Thunderbirds a surprise go for netball legend De Bruin

On the cusp of retirement, Silver Ferns centurion Leana de Bruin has been coaxed across the Tasman to taste a new intensity on the netball court. Suzanne McFadden reports.

Leana de Bruin had planned to be “unemployed and a beach bum” by now.

But even the best-laid plans of a sporting star can go a little askew. And, in this case, it may be all for the better – for both herself and New Zealand netball.

De Bruin, now 40, had come to the realisation she missed the intensity of international netball, having hung up her black dress two years ago. So she pushed aside notions of retirement, and allowed herself to be lured across the Tasman, to play a leading role in Australia’s Super Netball league.

As for her probability of becoming beach bum, she is, at least, living by the sea - near the popular white-sand beach of Glenelg in Adelaide. And, even though she’s near the end of a long and glittering playing career, de Bruin has found herself gainfully employed, as captain of the Adelaide Thunderbirds.

Yesterday she began her what is essentially the third phase of her playing career, leading out the multi-national Thunderbirds in their season opener against the West Coast Fever.  

It was a baptism of fire, as goal keep de Bruin found herself up against an old nemesis – former Southern Steel shooter Jhaniele Fowler-Reid. The towering Jamaican superstar made a stunning debut for the Fever: by three-quarter time, she was already the highest scorer in any Super Netball game. “And I thought I’d got rid of her,” de Bruin says. Fowler-Reid ended up with 66 goals, consigning the Thunderbirds to a 74-56 defeat.

Playing in Australia, and at this level, is not something de Bruin saw in her future. “Never in a million years would I have imagined this,” she says. “Honestly, sometimes I have to pinch myself. I never thought that people would think I was actually still good enough to compete on this side of the ditch.”

This won’t be a long-term gig. Of that, de Bruin is certain. But she hopes it will ultimately help in her big-picture goal of coaching at the elite level of netball back in New Zealand.

De Bruin had thought she was satisfied with her netball lot - 104 internationals for the Silver Ferns, and before that, 34 for the South African Proteas. For years an integral part of the victorious Magic side – including the only time a New Zealand team won the trans-Tasman league - she helped the new Northern Stars franchise get a foothold in the inaugural ANZ Premiership last season.

But just as that competition wrapped up last July, de Bruin got an unexpected long-distance call from Dan Ryan, the head coach of the Thunderbirds.

“He asked what were the chances of me coming over to Adelaide to play for them. At the time, my answer was like: ‘Probably zero’,” she recalls.

“I was thinking of my family and how would I make it work?”

A sea change would mean de Bruin and her eight-year-old son, Caleb, leaving their home on a farm in the Waikato; Caleb moving further away from his dad, and de Bruin from her new partner.

“But Dan’s a man who uses his words very well, and he convinced me to sit down and work out how we could make it happen. I talked it through with family, and at the end of the day, we had a plan we could all agree on. And now I’m here,” she says.

As Caleb starts at his new school today, his mum will be musing over her first day in Australia’s premier league.

Unlike New Zealand’s elite competition, the Suncorp Super Netball league allows unlimited access to overseas players. The Thunderbirds – who struggled last season, scoring only one win - have taken full advantage, with the team laden with players who have turned out for five different Commonwealth nations.

“Not that New Zealand’s competition has easy games, but there are so many international players in this league, it has more of an international netball feel about it, compared to what we have at home. It makes it a tougher competition to be part of,” de Bruin says. “That was one of the big drawcards for me, because I do miss the international intensity.”

Among the new-look T’Birds are South African captain Bongiwe Msomi, Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Australian Diamond-turned-English Rose, Chelsea Pitman, and young Jamaican shooter Shimona Nelson, who came into the side to cover for former Silver Fern Cat Tuivaiti, on her way back from knee surgery.

“We are very diverse bunch, and it took a while to bring us all together,” de Bruin says. “But I think we all complement each other really well. Everybody respects each other and wants the team to be better than last year. 

“Everyone asks me ‘how’s the body?’ And it’s great. Without those test matches now, I’m pretty fresh. You just train smarter when you’re my age.”  

Ryan headhunted de Bruin for her competitiveness and tenacity. “When under pressure she wants to be the person who wins the ball for the team and that is leadership,” he told the Adelaide Advertiser. She was a natural fit for the captaincy, he said, quickly winning the respect of the team.

De Bruin admits she is unfazed by the leadership role. “I’m really there to play as best I can,” she says. “And probably teach as well, share my experience. I enjoy the pressure that comes with the captaincy - it makes me play better. And I’m a firm believer in leading by example.”

She hopes the experience in a different environment will add to her credentials towards becoming a leading netball coach. Back in New Zealand, she had her own business, travelling the country providing specialist coaching sessions in schools and clubs. “I’d like to tap into what I’ve learned here, and at home, to become a good coach in the long run,” she says. 

Although the grass may look greener on that side of the Tasman, de Bruin reckons from what she's experienced so far, the differences between the two netballing nations are minimal. “We all play the same game, and do the same kind of training," she says. “While we’re pretty fortunate in Adelaide, with netball well supported by the media, we’re still a small fish competing against AFL for the public’s attention. It’s certainly not as big as it in New Zealand.”

She feels a real sense of sadness for the Silver Ferns, and their recent downhill slide. She found the Commonwealth Games “extremely hard to watch”.   

“I really feel for the girls. I’ve been there when things haven’t gone right, but this just seemed a lot tougher,” she says.

Despite this detour in her life plan, de Bruin is adamant she won’t be returning to the international scene, and realistically knows the end of her playing days is near. 

"Now that Caleb is getting older, it's time for us to concentrate on him doing what he wants to do," she says. “All he talks about is being a professional sportsperson, so hopefully he will.”

She vows to bring her young rugby player back to New Zealand before he becomes with gripped by South Australia’s favourite game of footie.

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