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Frew stokes up the Steel for a tough netball season

The Southern Steel's perennial captain, Wendy Frew, is doing everything she can to ensure her champion netball side come out fighting in this year's national league, while battling back from her own challenges. Suzanne McFadden reports.

There cannot be many professional sports teams around the globe where the captain brings homemade chicken pie to training, to feed her tuckered-out team-mates.

But then, there are very few captains quite like the Southern Steel’s immortal leader, Wendy Frew.

A true daughter of Invercargill, this weekend marks Frew’s fifth year as captain of the national champions Steel, and her 16th season playing for a southern netball franchise. She’s swift to point out, though, she hasn’t been fuelling the team all of that time.

“I don’t do it too often. The girls give me stick about my cooking,” says Frew, at 33, still one of the grittiest and most uncompromising wing defences in the country.

But they’re also quick to accept it. In this season's build-up, she’s prepared zucchini quiche, and her chicken, pumpkin and kumara pie - with salad - especially for the young players who come from Dunedin to train.

“A few nights I’ve gone down to Invercargill and she’s cooked me meals to take home,” says Steel shooting rookie Olivia Bates. “She’s got her own family to feed, but she would do anything to help us. She’s a good one, that Wendy Frew.”

It’s a way for Frew to ensure her players eat well when they’re away from home. But it’s also her way of giving back.

Last year, as she went through some of her “darkest days”, the deliveries of home-cooked meals were a godsend to Frew, her fireman husband Trent, and their two young children, Archie and Indie.

They first arrived as Frew was recovering from a traumatic van crash at a Christchurch intersection in June; she was with five of her Steel team-mates, having just visited Ronald McDonald House. After the van skidded on its side for 30 metres, Frew came out the worst, needing 70 stitches to gashes in her arm and leg.

“You have dark days where you look at yourself and think, ‘How am I ever going to play at that standard again?’ But there is no better feeling than getting off your crutches and being able to hold your kids’ hands while you walk down the street.”

Then, after she’d battled her way back to play in the Steel’s ANZ Premiership final triumph a fortnight later, the support was needed again. This time, for her long, slow mend following surgery to her Achilles, which ruptured during the Super Club final in July.

“The first couple of months were really tough - being on crutches and moon-booting, not being much of a mother figure around the house. But the support we got was unreal,” she says.

Frew was also dealing with heartbreak - having to pull out of the New Zealand squad, as she was on the verge of slipping back into the black dress, eight years after last playing a test for the Silver Ferns. “I’m probably still not over that to be honest,” she admits.

She’s not fully over her Achilles injury either. Although she will be on the team roster for the opening Super Sunday round of the ANZ Premiership in Palmerston North this weekend, a full 60 minutes on court for Frew is still weeks away. She admits she’s nervous, knowing that she’s not quite where she’d like to be.

“I’m flirting with the hundy,” she says, meaning 100 percent fitness. “It’s been a tough off-season and a very big challenge for me.

“You have dark days where you look at yourself and think, ‘How am I ever going to play at that standard again?’ But there is no better feeling than getting off your crutches and being able to hold your kids’ hands while you walk down the street.”

Whether she’s a hundy or not, the Steel need Frew - for her doggedness, her insight, and her leadership - more than ever this season.

Last year, the Steel dominated every competition they played in, never dropping a game. But Frew and those around her know it may be a different story in 2018.

Frew is cheered by her Steel team-mates. Photo: Dianne Manson

They’ve lost two of their lynchpin players at each end of the court - goal keep Jane Watson, who’s gone home to the Mainland Tactix, and goal shoot Jhaniele Fowler-Reid, who’s gone to play in Australia’s Super Netball league.

Fowler-Reid (who is Jamaican, and known to the team as Jae) braved Invercargill’s snow for five winters. She became accustomed to the cold and the southern style of netball, so that before she left, she was far and away the most lethal shooter in the country.

“They were both incredible players for us. But Jae was our star, and she’s a huge loss to us,” Frew says. “We know we won’t dominate like we did last year. It’s going to be a lot tighter, but to be honest, I think that makes for a more exciting competition.

“We’ve recruited well, and we’re working hard with the new recruits. They have big shoes to fill, and it’s obviously a big step up for the girls filling them.”

Olivia Bates is one of those newbies attempting to fill those big shoes. The sister of White Ferns cricket captain Suzie Bates, she’s provided cover for the Steel for a number of years, and shone last season when called into the emotional game against the Tactix straight after the van accident.

“I can’t wait – it’s been a long time coming for me, so it’s actually pretty special,” Bates says. “Hopefully we’ll show that you don’t need a big tall shooter to win - like England did at the Commonwealth Games.”

"We are tough, us Kiwis, and I know we can turn it around and start dominating world netball again."

Frew says the team don’t expect Bates and fellow shooter Jennifer O’Connell - who was in the Steel squad last year - to play like Fowler-Reid. “We just want them to be consistent,” she says. “The senior players around them need to step up more than we did last year, and help mould them into their roles.”

The Steel were also stung when their new Jamaican import, defender Malysha Kelly, had to return home after rupturing the ACL in her left knee during pre-season training.

“It was so disappointing for Mally, and it means we won’t have an import this season. But at the same time it’s great that we can get as many Kiwis as we can playing the game at this level,” Frew says.

The return of the Steel’s Silver Ferns, Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Shannon Francois, has given the squad new motivation. “And I’m sure coming into a new environment has been refreshing for them, too,” says Frew. “There will be a lot of Silver Ferns out there wanting to get some form back and play consistent netball week in, week out.

“Te Paea and Shannon had different roles in the Ferns than they do with us. They come back to us as senior players - we’re certainly expecting big things from them. It’s lifted our intensity having them back in the frame.”

No matter who is on court, or the current state that netball is in, Frew is confident the Steel will still have their legendary band of followers at full noise this season.

“I feel like everyone will still be right behind us,” she says. “Walking around town and talking to people, their expectations of us aren’t as high as last year. But as players we still have very high expectations of ourselves.”

So do the people on the wide streets of Invercargill offer Frew their advice on how to fix the Silver Ferns? “There’s a bit of talk around the Ferns, but as a player you need to support those girls. I try not to get into that side of it with people. But we are tough, us Kiwis, and I know we can turn it around and start dominating world netball again,” she says.

But Frew isn't certain she will get another chance to be part of the Silver Ferns (she played one test, against Australia, in 2008).

“When you get a taste of the black dress, you always want to wear it. To be finally be looked at again, then to do my Achilles and have to pull out, was heart-breaking,” she says.

“This season I just want to play reasonable netball for the Steel. I’m another year older, and I’ve had a pretty horrific injury on the netball court. So I’ll have to come out and be pretty unstoppable for them to look at me again.

“Honestly, I just want to lead from the front in the Steel dress. That leadership is something I pride myself in and never take for granted.”

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