Week in Review
The Aussie helping the Silver Ferns beat the Diamonds
She's head of the women's Aussie Rules and netball programmes at one of Australia's oldest sports clubs, so why is Jane Woodlands-Thompson sitting alongside Noeline Taurua as the Silver Ferns play the Aussies?
It's the latest of Noeline Taurua’s enlightened, outside-the-box moments.
In the week that her Sunshine Coast Lightning team was playing in Australia’s Super Netball grand final, Taurua phoned her old nemesis, Jane Woodlands-Thompson.
She wanted to know if the former Adelaide Thunderbirds coach would like to join her coaching the Silver Ferns for the upcoming four-test series against her homeland, Australia.
Woodlands-Thompson couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “I'd planned to phone her that day and say 'good luck', so I thought she was ringing to say she hadn’t heard from me,” she laughs.
She hadn’t realised that Debbie Fuller, the assistant coach of the Silver Ferns in their victorious World Cup campaign, had made herself unavailable for the Constellation Cup, to spend more time with her young family.
“Noels asked me what I was doing in October, and I said ‘working’,” Woodlands-Thompson says.
Woodlands-Thompson, who took the Thunderbirds to two ANZ Championship crowns, hung up her coaching hat a few seasons ago. She now works for the Collingwood Football Club – one of Australia’s most iconic sporting clubs – where she’s in charge of directing both the Magpies’ women’s Aussie Rules football team and their Super Netball team.
But there was something too intriguing about the invitation for Woodlands-Thompson to it turn down. Especially, the chance to work with Taurua for the first time, instead of against her.
“I’ve admired Noeline for so long - we’ve been coaching against each other for 15 years on and off. And invariably we’d go head-to-head, the Magic and the Thunderbirds, in the finals,” she says.
(Yes, recalls Taurua, former coach of the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, “I’ve been on the receiving end of many thrashings from Jane’s teams over the years”.)
“I’ve always been really intrigued by the way she does things,” Woodlands-Thompson says, “so the opportunity to work with Noeline was fantastic.
“My CEO at Collingwood was really supportive when I asked him for time off. He said: ‘Hey, these guys are world-class, it would be great to go in and see how the best do it’.”
Taurua, arguably one of the greatest coaches netball has seen, approached Woodlands-Thompson to be a specialist coach because she was looking for a way to change things up – not only for the Silver Ferns, but for herself.
“Where we are currently sitting in the world, now is the time for us to look at ways to be better. Not only from a player perspective, but also for myself,” Taurua says.
“Now is the opportunity to grow and learn, and do things a bit differently, instead of doing what we did at the Netball World Cup and thinking that’s going to be it.
“What I’ve always noticed about Jane is how well-drilled her teams are, and the creativity in her strategy. I always felt the individuals she had were really strong in themselves, and the next year they were able to improve their game.
“Those are things we need to do in the Silver Ferns.”
Taurua concedes there are some who recoil at the thought of allowing a coach well-entrenched in Australian netball to sit beside her on the New Zealand bench.
“Yes, she is an Australian, and she has been in their system for so long, but there is so much value in what she brings and we’re really happy,” she says.
It’s highly unlikely Australian Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander - who has her 100th game as coach on Wednesday - shares in her delight. She told AAP she found it “surprising” Woodlands-Thompson had found time to spend with the Ferns on top of her Collingwood job.
"All the best to Jane, but she will be considered to be a Kiwi now,” she said.
Woodlands-Thompson doesn’t see it as a problem, for either nation. She promises not to take any of Netball New Zealand’s intellectual property back to the Collingwood Magpies.
What she will take, she believes, is a broadening of her experience and an ability to deal with people in a different way.
“Noels has this special way of making every player feel like they’re the most important player in the world in their position. Her ability to get through to the most unusual and difficult of players is such a knack that’s admired everywhere,” she says.
“It’s been really fascinating watching it unfold. We had player interviews yesterday, and she asked really different kinds of questions, that get into not just how they’re thinking, but what they’re feeling.
“Us Aussies are very technical-heavy, and we’re very much ‘this is what we’re doing’ and we’re hard at it.
“In high performance sport it’s very easy to get caught up in the knowledge, and the cut-and-thrust pace of it. Noels seems to keep up with that, and yet still have time for the people and the little things.
“She’s a really hard worker. It’s blown me away the number of hours she does in a day - she must run on empty at times.”
Taurua also likes that Woodlands-Thompson, a former PE teacher, has a similar holistic approach to the game and the players.
“I taught a lot of kids who are real battlers, and it gives you incredible empathy,” says Woodlands-Thompson. “I like to get to know people and understand their background, why they do what they do.”
She flew into Christchurch late on the night before the Silver Ferns’ first-test one-goal win, and hit the ground running.
She loves New Zealand, having spent a season here in 2016, helping Fuller to coach the Northern Mystics. “I had the pleasure of working with Maria [Folau] and Mikkie [Sokolich Beatson],” she says.
It’s exactly a year ago this week since Woodlands-Thompson began as general manager of women’s sport for the Collingwood Magpies.
She’s no stranger to the GM role – she filled it at Netball South Australia while she was coaching the Thunderbirds (“I didn’t read the fine print, clearly”). She also did her Master’s degree in applied science in sports coaching and management.
“At Collingwood, we have seven teams and ironically most of them are female - two netball teams and two footy teams,” she says. “The football programme is really world-class, so I'm learning a lot from that.”
Woodlands-Thompson is actually a massive footie fan at heart. It was the sport she played for most of her young life.
“At Glenelg Primary School, footie was my favourite sport. I played with the boys – I was the only girl in the team, and in the competition. But at high school there was no pathway for me – I went to footie practice and they pointed me in the direction of the netball courts. Which, as it happens, has turned out okay for me,” she laughs.
“I’m just so excited that girls and women now have an opportunity to play in a professional league, not just a kick and a catch in the social grades.”
Looking after both elite teams is like having twins, Woodlands-Thompson explains. “They were born at the same time… one is a bit more talented in some things, and sometimes one is more needy than the other,” she says.
The Magpies made SuperNetball’s final four this season (despite losing captain Madi Browne and her sister Kelsey with knee injuries), but the Magpies won only one game in their AFLW conference.
At the Silver Ferns’ last full training before Wednesday night’s second test in Auckland, Woodlands-Thompson wore a goal attack bib, and worked with the attackers. At the opposite end, former Silver Ferns coach Yvonne Willering – who’s also helping out in this series - ran the defenders through their paces.
The Australian hopes she’s bringing “new ways to see the same things” to the Silver Ferns.
“What’s challenging for this team, after such a magnificent result at the World Cup, is to refocus and create a consistent pattern. Having experienced coaches come in was a way of refreshing that and keeping the girls thinking, after what has been a very long year for them,” she says.
Woodlands-Thompson will still be on the Kiwi bench for the last two tests in Sydney and Perth.
Her home is now Melbourne, although her family is scattered. Her eldest son, Alex, plays soccer for Adelaide City, and while the younger, Seb, plays ice hockey in the US junior league in Detroit. Her husband, Adam, teaches in Adelaide but flies to Melbourne in the school holidays. “It all works for now,” Woodlands-Thompson says.
Although she knows the English verse of God Defend New Zealand, she did feel she hadn’t “earned my stripes to belt it out” last Sunday.
When the Australian anthem was playing, she gave a wink to Diamonds player Ash Brazill – who plays netball and AFLW for Collingwood. “She gave me a wink during the Kiwi anthem,” she says.
“It’s just a pleasure and a privilege to be standing alongside this Silver Ferns team. I just want to give 100 percent to Noels and the team – it’s a gig I’m fully invested in.”