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The hunt for the taller people

The Silver Ferns need lankier shooters. And loftier defenders. The hunt for the taller people in our netball is gaining momentum, reports Suzanne McFadden.

It’s no revelation that international netball is now dominated by long-levered players, bookends at the extremes of the court. Since Irene van Dyk finally retired her 1.93m tall frame and Leana de Bruin - a soaring 1.90m - followed, New Zealand netball has struggled to replicate their height advantage.

That played a part in the bigger calamity that cut the Silver Ferns off at the knees during the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

Two years ago, Netball New Zealand undertook a nationwide search. “Hunt for Height” aimed to recruit young women - aged 16-19, and at least 1.9m tall - to play netball. Now the programme is focused on giving very tall young netballers year-round support and nurturing so that they will stick with the game.

Only 0.3 percent of netballers in New Zealand fit the bill of "very tall" - over 1.9m (or 6ft 3in). And many of their needs, it turns out, are very different to your averagely tall player.

"We try to make them understand that they are incredibly unique," says Nic Kelly, the coach dedicated to the Hunt for Height. "But there are constraints that come with that. They get pushed ahead in the sport because they're tall, but their skills aren't always there.  

"Some of the girls in the programme had never played against players as tall as them until a year ago. They'd never had their shot interfered with, never had to jump for the ball in their lives. They're suddenly playing in the ANZ Premiership or at national under-19 level having never done these things, and that's hard for them to deal with. It's about getting their heads around what it means, and how they can change that."

The Australians are on the ball too. This week they announced their Tall Athlete squad – a dozen young netballers singled out for specialist coaching and development to become future towering Diamonds.

“It’s what we’re forced to do,” says New Zealand’s convenor of netball selectors, Gael Nagaiya (once a rangy Silver Fern defender herself). 

“The minute you come across someone tall at the end of the court, shooters or defenders, you need to have like-for-like to cancel them out. When you have a not-so-tall shooter come up against a tall defender, it’s hard work getting the ball in to them. Without a tall defender, you're totally reliant on a team strategy to get the ball before it gets anywhere near their shooters, and that’s bloody tough.

“We have to be proactive, because these girls are very popular commodities. Rowing wants them, water polo and basketball wants them. Netball has so much competition now."

Nagaiya reckons you can take a young woman with height and turn her into an elite athlete - but not without intensive work.

“It takes time to train these long levers to get co-ordinated. We’ve seen it with [Australian goal shoot] Caitlin Bassett in recent years, and we saw it with Irene when she first came to play in New Zealand. With a lot of work they turned into true athletes,” she says.

Perhaps the most powerful example is Jamaican goal shoot Jhaniele Fowler-Reid, who at 1.98m, stands head and shoulders above some of her rivals.

Over five years working with the Southern Steel franchise in Invercargill, Fowler-Reid was transformed from an imposing but ungainly shooter with oodles of raw talent, into a strong, indefatigable and deadly accurate shooter with an extended range. Her knowledge of the game grew too, arguably to the Silver Ferns’ disadvantage.

Look, too, at Ugandan shooter Peace Proscovia (1.93m), who’s led her country to new netball heights, pushing the Silver Ferns hard on the Gold Coast. Born into poverty, Proscovia defied the wishes of her family and village and sought a professional sporting career. Last year she was the most outstanding shooter in the English Superleague.

But things may be looking up for the future Ferns. There's a new strain of tall timber in the ANZ Premiership this year, with three homegrown shooters over the magic 1.9m mark.

- Ellie Bird (1.96m) is in her first full season with the Tactix and the tallest player in the league. While she needs to sharpen her shooting skills, she collects hard flat passes well, and is working on gathering in lobs. She should improve with a season playing with the calm and wise former Australian Diamond shooter Kate Beveridge.

- Jennifer O’Connell (1.93m) is in her second year at the Steel, but she didn’t get much of a look-in last year when Fowler-Reid was around. A quintessential Southlander, she has tenacity and raw talent, and is building her core strength this season.

- Aliyah Dunn (1.90m) is another shooter from the deep south, and at 18 years old, is probably the most promising. After starting off in the Junior Tall Ferns basketball side, she starred in the New Zealand under-21 netball team who won the World Youth Cup last year. In her first season with the Pulse, she's formed a formidable partnership with another teenager, goal attack Tiana Metuarau, keeping Silver Fern Ameliaranne Ekanasio on the bench. With great movement and precision, Dunn has shot the side to three ANZ Premiership wins from three with 87 percent accuracy. 

Young Silver Fern Kelly Jury is the sole defender in the league over 1.9m tall. At 21, she's already proving her worth, but needs more experience to become a regular starter in the Ferns line-up. 

While tall shooters may be a necessity for success, they are not “the complete answer”, Nagaiya says. Her perfect recipe in the shooting circle would be one tall, athletic goal shoot, and a shorter, zappier goal attack: “a thinking playmaker like Sharelle McMahon”.

Turning other elite athletes into netballers doesn’t necessarily work either. In 2015, the Mystics recruited 2.04m Tall Fern basketballer Megan Craig for the ANZ Championship, but she struggled with the switch in code. Undaunted, she's continued to try to make her mark in netball, playing in the English Superleague last season.

The answer may well lie in nurturing the lofty players the sport already has. So far the Hunt for Height has taken in around 20 young netballers, and this season the search continues at tournaments like the national secondary schools and under-17 championships, now the largest netball tournament in the country. The selected group receive coaching from Kelly, strength and conditioning support and mental skills.

"Our tall netballers get to a certain level and they don't have the skills to cope with it," says Kelly. "We can't change the way they're coached, but the players can influence how they train and what they do to ensure they have the skills when they're put into that performance environment," she says. "Hopefully our next generation of players coming through will be so much better off."

Nagaiya believes its imperative these players are put into such a programme while they're still teens, and are taught to be strong and injury-free. “They don’t operate the same as a smaller athlete – try and get a tall girl to do a press-up. Jeepers," she says.

“There are some beautiful tall athletic players coming out of Northland right now. And a lot of colleges with established netball programmes are offering scholarships to players like them.”

The future success of the Ferns is not all about height, Nagaiya warns. “We’re not all streamlined long, thin thoroughbreds. We have a wonderful mix of cultures in our netball players," she says. "We need a variety of bodies and cultures, because it gives New Zealand netball its wonderful versatility.”

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