Silver Ferns in great shape, says netball’s grand Dame
Suzanne McFadden talks with Dame Lois Muir on finally retiring at 84, how much netball has changed in 60 years, and how the Silver Ferns will fare at the World Cup in Liverpool.
Little about Dame Lois Muir changes through the decades. She still keeps her silver hair elegantly pulled back in a chignon. She still can’t watch a game of netball without running through tactics in her mind, and she still speaks frankly about the state of the game and of the Silver Ferns.
But what has changed is that she is no longer employed. At the age of 84, she recently decided not to work another Dunedin winter in a friend’s pharmacy.
“I'd been working in pharmacies since I was 15, you know. People forget that I had another life,” the unforgettable, hugely successful Silver Ferns coach says.
Her knees, she concedes, are a little “crunchier” these days. She needs the help of a supportive arm to get up on a stage. But she still goes to the gym once a week and works out with her personal trainer, Joe.
When I say still, Muir points out she never trained at a gym all through her double international playing career in both netball and basketball. She played sport most nights of the week, and sometimes in her lunch hour she would go to a nearby basketball stadium to put up shots.
Netball, of course, has changed dramatically since Muir played in black stockings, gym frock and tie.
And she’s been there at the forefront of the game - as a player, coach or Netball NZ president - for most of the sport’s defining moments. From the switch from nine to seven-a-side in the early 1960s, to the change of name from indoor basketball to netball in the ‘70s, moving the game indoors in the ‘90s, and then the ground-shaking leap into professionalism. It’s been quite a ride.
Still in Dunedin - where she’s lived all her adult life - Muir was in Auckland last week for a reunion of the 1979 Silver Ferns team she coached to World Cup victory; and also to hand the current Silver Ferns their black dresses before they flew out to England for their World Cup, which starts this Saturday (NZ time).
We sat down to reminisce and look into the near future.
Dame Lois on the Silver Ferns:
“They’re still a work in progress,” Muir says of the Silver Ferns team about to play in Liverpool. "But they're looking good."
Having played in the first World Cup in 1963, then coached New Zealand at four world champs (winning in 1979 and 1987) – with a 91 win, 10 loss, six draw record over her 14 year career - she’s a bit of an expert on the subject.
Muir has a lot of confidence in the current Ferns coach, Noeline Taurua, appointed a year ago when the Ferns were at an all-time low.
“Noeline was the right person for the job, no doubt about it. She's a realist and tells it as it is,” she says.
“She’s doing a great job. And the players have come to the party too, upping their fitness. You’ve got to have fitness and experience at a world championships, because you’ve got to run the total race.
“It's excellent Noels has taken the most experienced team. We saw the second team [the All Stars, in the recent Cadbury Series], and there was no one there who really put their hand up and said ‘pick me’. So that was a great endorsement of her selection.”
Muir was impressed with the Ferns' ability to adjust their game, particularly in the final of that series against the NZ Men.
“Their tactics changed, by playing low ball, no lobs and shorter passes,” she says. “They’re doing well, their passes are much sharper, but they haven't got the on-court strategy and the timing quite right yet - and that comes with time.
“But you can put this in bold print: The Silver Ferns grew in this series.
“We've had other series where they've actually gone downhill in their unity, but they've grown tremendously.”
So how does she think the Ferns – now ranked fourth in the world, behind Australia, England and Jamaica - will fare in Liverpool?
“Well, they've got an excellent draw and that’s the key. If they pace themselves, they'll be fine to go through number one or two from their section."
New Zealand and Australia are the clearest contenders to make the semifinals from their side of the draw.
"They don't want to do what they did in the last World Cup though - beat Australia early on and go silly, then a couple of people went missing in the final.” (Australia defended their crown, 58-55).
“But you know Joe Public, we’re very demanding and when you play for New Zealand, your critics are on your shoelaces. We don't like coming second and Noels - and a lot of these players - are in that category too.”
On World Cups:
Muir has been to 12 of the 14 Netball World Cups, but will watch this one at home.
When she was vice-captain of the Silver Ferns in the first World Cup 56 years ago, Muir travelled by ship for five weeks to England. Staying at a university hostel, the Ferns ate their meals with the team they’d play that day.
“Friendship was the big thing. We never got any medals; no one got a cup for winning,” Muir says. "Teams don’t have that same unity today."
In Port of Spain in 1979, when New Zealand finished in a three-way tie for the title with Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, it was triumph over adversity.
“We were under police security the whole time, restricted to the hotel and escorted to and from the games,” Muir recalls. “There was a bit of cheaty stuff going on in netball at the time. Trinidad really wanted to win.”
The Ferns were stood on, spat on, under fire from water balloons from the crowd; the synthetic courts were slick like glass when it rained. “You certainly needed stickability to win,” Muir says.
World tournaments have become more competitive, she says, because countries are investing more in their netball programmes.
Look at the English Roses, the Commonwealth Games champions: “They've put a lot of money into it and held onto their older players, so they're really quite well off. But they'll be deprived of that experience at the next World Cup.”
Muir worries about the standard of umpiring at the sport’s pinnacle.
“When we have neutral umpires, they are of a slightly lesser standard. We need to work a bit harder to keep umpiring up to par. A couple of calls can make a big difference in a game,” she says.
“It comes down to how resourceful the players are, learning to cope with a call and carry on, not retaliate."
On netball’s future:
As a nation with a smaller netball pool than Australia and England, it’s time for Netball NZ to be a “little more resourceful”, Muir reckons.
“I think we've got to think about lifting the standard of coaching and the strategies. We've got a bit boring, we're just doing the same thing,” she says.
“Instead of going out and sort of spraying skills at the kids, I think we should take some of our past top players around the country, specialists in their areas of the court, and gave the young girls some little pearls of wisdom to practise in their club games.”
Muir applauded the inclusion of the NZ Men’s side in an international series for the first time, and sees it as just the beginning. “It was great to give the men exposure. I see it as an opportunity to use that avenue a lot more - even in coaching and umpiring."
“I'm only 84. And it's a pretty cool number,” Muir says.
A widow for the past 15 years, she’s spent the past 12 helping out at the Dunedin City Pharmacy, working four hours a day to cover the lunch shift. It started so she could earn a little spending money for the 2007 World Cup in Fiji (which was cancelled by a coup).
“It was always busy. We had a lot of cruise ships - about 120 this year into Dunedin. Some of the passengers were New Zealanders who’d look at me and say ‘Did you use to live in Rotorua?’ As if to say, ‘I know your face but I can't think who you are!’
“Working with young people kept me young.”
She’s enjoying a slower pace of life since retiring in April, and has no inclination to get involved with a sports organisation or do public speaking.
“I don't feel it . My brain certainly doesn’t, but my knees are old. But if that's all I've got to put up with, then I'm doing okay.’”
On the importance of netball:
For all that Muir achieved in the game, becoming netball’s first Dame in 2009, the mother of three sons and a breast cancer survivor says winning “a couple of world championships and that sort of thing” wasn’t the most important thing in her life.
What’s meant more, she says, was seeing the impact that being a Silver Fern had on her players. Four of the Ferns who won the World Cup in 1979 – Lyn Gunson, Leigh Gibbs, Yvonne Willering and Ruth Aitken - went on to become New Zealand coaches. As did Wai Taumaunu, one of Muir’s 1987 world champions.
“That to me is perhaps more important than winning a world championship,” she says. “But then the country doesn't see it that way.”
She admits she was addicted to the job of New Zealand coach. “I just loved it, lived it and did it. I made my own video clips and dished them out to the kids. It wasn’t until Glasgow  that I got a physio, and we had no one to do fitness,” she says.
When Janine Southby left the Silver Ferns last year in a swirl of controversy, Muir couldn’t go to the supermarket without being hounded.
“Yeah, I got people asking, ‘What are they going to do? Are you coming back?’”
“Not a bloody hope.”