Emotional Folau sizes up Games swansong
Netball's electrifying shooting star Maria Folau is fighting back from injury to make her fourth Commonwealth Games, where she wants to play as if it’s her last hurrah, she tells Suzanne McFadden.
These past three weeks have been among the toughest Maria Folau has faced in her 13 years as a Silver Fern.
With her fourth, and final, Commonwealth Games looming, Folau was diagnosed with a partial tear of the patellar tendon in her right knee. The pain, she could deal with. The fear of being side-lined, she could not.
She’d had a great summer hiatus from the netball court – throwing herself into training every day in her new home of Sydney with her new husband, Wallabies fullback Israel Folau.
They would go running and do speed tests together. But they quickly gave up on practising netball passes. "His passing is just terrible. My goodness, it’s not so hard to do a lob pass, is it?” the Silver Ferns vice-captain says. “I just ended up passing to the wall. But then Izzy defends me, runs with me and physically pushes me like the defenders do on court. It’s been cool.”
The 31-year-old Folau, who made her Silver Ferns debut at 18, has no idea how the injury came to be. Wear and tear, doctors told her after studying the x-rays.
“It totally blew me off the court,” she says, in Auckland, as she’s waiting to have the nagging knee strapped. “I’m always a true believer of things happening for a reason. But I’m still trying to figure out what that reason is at the moment.
“These last three weeks have been extremely testing. My patience and my faith have definitely taken a hit. Why would this happen so close to the Commonwealth Games? These are definitely my last [games] and maybe God is just wanting to remind me how lucky I am. And test whether I truly believe I can make it back on court in a short time with an injury like this.”
The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, beginning on April 4, are close enough. But the Taini Jamison Trophy – a four-day dress rehearsal series against Malawi, Jamaica and Fiji – starts in Auckland tonight.
A couple of weeks ago, Folau envisaged she would sit this series out, focusing instead on returning for the Fern’s opening Commonwealth Games match against England. But her tenacious approach to rehabilitation, with the help of the Ferns’ medical team, has fast-tracked her back on court, training with the Ferns squad in the past few days. She may even be playing this week.
“We had a plan from when I got injured as to what the next month would look like. But where I am right now is much better than expected – I’m killing it,” she says.
“I’ve been doing the leg press from doom. I swear, I better have a summer bum, because my glutes and quads have been working like crazy. Now I just have to get my game fitness up. Two-and-a-half weeks of no running is a long time for me not to be aerobically active; the lungs have taken a hit the last few trainings.”
Maybe the reason she’s been searching for comes in the form of a change in her playing style? While she’s unable to run into spaces in the shooting circle with the same kind of swiftness as before, Folau has quietly adapted her goal attack game.
“I’m counting on my top two inches,” she says frankly. “The last couple of trainings, without my usual fitness, I haven’t been playing the normal goal attack style that I’m used to.
“I’ve been relying on how I can create space without running so much; creating different angles for whoever I’m playing with in the circle, so we can minimise the ‘banging time’ against defenders.
“It’s just another part of my game that I’m trying to grow… I’m really enjoying the fact this injury is giving me new vision.”
It has been an emotional week for Folau. The day she was handed her black dress by Silver Ferns coach Janine Southby, she failed to hold back tears. Southby spoke of the wisdom and experience that Folau, with 118 test caps, brings to the team, and the honour she’s had working with her.
"Only a very few women get to experience this. It’s a privilege and an honour.”
It wasn’t intended as a farewell speech, but the Gold Coast could be Folau’s international swansong. “I know that if my body lasts for the  World Cup, then that will be my last hurrah. But whether it’s the Comm Games or the worlds, I’m just playing every game in the black dress as if it’s my last,” she says.
“I’m just trying to be there and be engaged every day with the Ferns as much as I can. I will know when it’s time to go.”
The tears also welled up from seeing a new name on her back.
Tutaia – the name under which she’s won two Commonwealth Games golds and a silver – has been substituted. “This is my first Commonwealth Games as a Folau,” she says poignantly.
The past six months have been an emotional rollercoaster ride. The highs: when the prominent sports couple married in a discreet ceremony in Australia in November.
“Marriage has made me more settled and relaxed,” Folau says.
And the lows: As the Silver Ferns plunged to a series of consecutive losses to Australia and England, likely to be their toughest rivals on the Gold Coast.
“The trials that the Ferns and Netball NZ have gone through for the last six months have been so tough, on and off the court. We are getting knocked down every single day by Joe Bloggs,” she says. “But I’m super proud of how the girls have handled every situation. For me to see the positivity, growth and learning within this team has been the biggest plus to still be here. For me to show up.”
Folau cannot lie. She has asked herself many times why she’s still stepping out under the hoop. “I reside in Sydney now; I have a husband. I’m at that stage where I want to start a family, and be a wife. But I have put that on hold for the Commonwealth Games and the Ferns, because it’s something I really want to do,” she says. Her husband, who is as driven as she is, is encouraging her to take every opportunity with her netball career.
Struggling with homesickness, she’s “working on” convincing him to move to Auckland. A former NRL and AFL player, Israel Folau’s Super Rugby contract with the Waratahs – where he’s been starring on the wing – ends later this year. “But I’ve made it very clear to him that I don’t want to go to Europe or Japan,” Maria Folau says. “I want our kids to be close to our families.”
With only her husband to train with, Folau admits she has at times battled to remain engaged. “When you’re with your team-mates you’re able to train together, do video analysis together, share each other’s ideas and feedback; ask how each other is feeling. Those are the conversations I miss,” she says. “There’s texting and calling, but it never quite suffices. I’ve really tried to challenge myself and make sure I keep up those connections. Otherwise, there’s no going forward.”
One link is through an app, Coach Logic, that Folau and her team-mates use to give each other feedback. The Ferns’ performance analyst, Dr Bobbie Willcox, loads every game they play, and codes every movement they make. “I’ll go on there and say ‘Oh Grace, do you think you could pass that one to me next time? Shannon, should I drive quicker to you?’ That’s been a plus, connecting that way,” Folau says.
The demoralising chain of recent defeats has brought out a new kind of “conversation” within the Ferns, Folau reveals.
“The conversations we’re having on court, we’ve never had before. The young ones are telling me what to do and where to go - and that’s great. They have some valid opinions in this environment. Because the scoreboard has gone against us, we’re at that point where it’s like, you know what? Say how you feel. We all want better for each other.
“It’s hard. It took me 10 years to open my mouth; I couldn’t say boo to anyone. But this is the fight coming out in us.
“We need to fight. We’ve been exposed on the last few tours, but like I said, I truly believe everything happens for a reason.”
Despite popular opinion, it’s not a lack of experience that’s been uncovered, she says. The English players have benefitted from playing in the Australian super league (but Folau still believes “100 percent” in the strength of the New Zealand competition, the ANZ Premiership). And the Roses have taken a new approach to the game, on and off the court.
“But that’s not to say that’s the answer. We have the answer – we’ve seen it, we’ve played some amazing netball against these teams. It's fight that we lack. We need to find it within ourselves, and I feel that’s slowly coming from the players.”
It’s impossible to forget the most stunning moment in Folau’s career. Sudden-death, extra-time in the 2010 Commonwealth Games final. The goal attack, crippled by calf cramps, calmly shot the winning goal.
But she shrugs off the weight of being a game winner, even though a nation could look to her again. In fact, she’s backing the shooting combination of Te Paea Selby-Rickit and Bailey Mes: “I’m really loving that combo, it’s coming along so well.
“I love pressure, that’s what I train for. I believe the last three weeks I’ve truly been put under pressure, and I’ve learned from that.
“Of course I want to win gold. It’s my fourth Games, and I could easily feel like ‘Oh here we go, another one’. But I realise only a very few women get to experience this. It’s a privilege and an honour.”