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‘Big Bird’ soars to new heights

Remember the name Ellie Bird. She could well be the next towering shooter the Silver Ferns need, as Suzanne McFadden reports. 

It's a miracle that Ellie Bird keeps turning up to training every day, knowing she's in for another round of shoving and abuse from her team-mates.

It’s become common practice for Bird - the tallest shooter in the ANZ Premiership and one of the most prolific - to be insulted, jabbed and pushed around during a Tactix training session in Christchurch.

The main perpetrators are Silver Ferns Temalisi Fakahokotau and Jane Watson – two of the most fierce defenders in the game.

But Bird tolerates it. In fact, she asks for it.

The 1.96m tall goal shoot – whose nickname is, no surprise, Big Bird – has grown in reputation this year.

The sister of former All Black lock Dominic Bird, she’s leaping higher, shooting sharper and has, what her coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek calls, “more tricks in her book”. She's transformed from a virtual unknown last season to one of the hottest shooters in the country. 

Bird’s evolution has played a major role in the unforeseen success of the Tactix - perennial cellar-dwellers, who last season won only two games. For the first time in the team’s history, they will play in an elimination final, facing off against defending champions, the Steel, in Invercargill.

A factor in Bird’s growth has been building strength in the face of menacing defenders - and who better to educate her than her own terrifying defensive duo? Especially when Fakahokotau tops the league for rebounds and intercepts (and is a close second for penalties against her).

“I get Tem and Jane to push me around like I’d be pushed in a game. When I’m up in the air, they try to push me out of court. We come up with strategies to combat it,” she says.

“They don’t hold back from talking shit and pushing me around when I’m trying to shoot the ball either.”

As the season has progressed, so have Bird’s shooting statistics. She has the third highest shooting volume in the league – 499 goals so far.

Her aim is to crack 90 percent accuracy in a game: “I’ve had a few 89's this season – dammit!”

Right now, she’s sitting on 80 percent accuracy for the season, dragged down by her early matches, scoring around 75 percent of her attempts and “overthinking it too much”.

“You need to go with the flow and do what you do without thinking about it. But that takes a lot of brain training,” she says.

Part of her problem, she realises, has been not having a worthy distraction to take her away from netball.

Bird completed her bachelor of science, majoring in environmental studies, at the end of last year. But her first full season in the national league has made it difficult to find a job, with an employer “who would need to love sport”, she says.

“Some girls love not working and just playing netball but I like to use my brain. I need something to take my mind off netball when I'm outside of netball,” she says.  

Bird would like to work in environmental analysis, and what she’s most passionate about, climate science. “It’s a tricky field to get into while you’re playing netball. But I’ll just see where the wind takes me,” she says.

At the same, she would naturally like to become a Silver Fern. It’s been a long time since the New Zealand side had a shooter of Bird’s physical stature.

Irene van Dyk – her childhood hero – was 5cm shorter than Bird. Daneka Wipiiti, who played 18 tests for New Zealand in the 2000s, was 1.94m tall.

Height of course isn’t everything, but Bird is developing into a more well-rounded goal shoot. Her strengths lie in taking the ball in the air, and gathering in rebounds – and her jumping continues to improve.  

“I’ve added a little bit of variety in what I do as well,” she says. “Defenders are always expecting me to just hold, and get the high ball. They’re not expecting me to pop forward or roll around the back. It all helps.

“I don’t enjoy just standing there. I like having a good run-around.”

The Silver Ferns are a long-term goal, but not too long, she warns.

“I’m getting quite old. Everyone says I’m young to netball, but I’m 25 years old. My aim is to make the Ferns next year or the year after, but any later than that I think I will be too old,” she says.

What about van Dyk, who ended her 20-year international career at the age of 42?

“Yeah, but that’s a huge commitment to be still playing at that age,” Bird says. “Sometimes I feel it in my body already.”

But there’s a good chance Bird will get to wear the silver fern sooner rather than later. She's already in the Ferns' development squad, and is a strong candidate to make the New Zealand A side to play England and South Africa next month.  

It wasn’t that Bird began her netball career late. Born in Waipukurau, she flew under the radar in her teenage years, content with playing age-group rep netball.

Then, in 2013, she got a phone call out of the blue from Delaney-Hoshek, who was looking for a tall shooter for her Wellington NPC team. She trialled and made the side. Bird then moved to the capital for university, and was playing club netball there, when Delaney-Hoshek – by then coaching in Christchurch – sent her a text two years ago.

“It said ‘Can I make you move any further south?’,” Bird recalls. By then, she'd had enough of Wellington, and was able to wrap up her degree by doing online papers through Victoria University and a couple of environmental papers at Lincoln. “It all worked out and I’m really glad I made the move.”

Bird shone for the Mainland team in the second-tier Beko League – which exists to feed aspiring players into ANZ Premiership sides. She was called into the Tactix midway through last season, and won her place in the starting seven this year.

While Delaney-Hoshek has been a major influence on her career so far, Bird's brother, Dom, has helped her with the mental side of her game, dishing out advice on handling pressure. 

The former Crusaders and Chiefs lock, who played two tests for the All Blacks, has ended his Super Rugby career, and arrived in France last weekend to take up a contract with Top 14 club Racing 92.

Bird won’t miss her brother quite as much as she will her new nephew. After the Tactix' last game, Bird was carrying baby Arthur around the court during her warm-down, tears rolling down her face.

“People saw me crying on TV, and everyone was asking: ‘Is Ellie okay?’ But I was just saying goodbye,” she says.

Bird puts the Tactix’ success this season down to stronger connections on court. She’s built her own instinctive understanding with goal attack Brooke Leaver. “We’re really good friends off the court too, which helps with communication. If she passes the wrong pass I can tell her straight out,” Bird says.

She’s also learned from her other goal attack, veteran Australian Diamonds shooter Kate Beveridge. “She’s been great in adding screens to our game. Just watching her play, how she holds, has given me more ideas on how to be stable.”

Bird has no doubt that the Tactix could complete a fairy-tale and win this year’s ANZ Premiership, now they’re only two wins away from the title. “I’ve known we could do it from the start,” she says.

“We had a lull where we lost a few games – thank god for bonus points. But I have full faith in this team; when everyone does their job we’re on fire. I definitely think we can do this.

“How cool would that be?”

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