Week in Review

A Silver Ferns star is born

The jaded Silver Ferns couldn’t pull off another spectacular comeback against the Australian Diamonds in the final test of the Constellation Cup. But there were positive signs of a new era of Ferns unfurling, like defender Karin Burger.

Karin Burger wanted to win the Constellation Cup as much any Silver Fern. It was the only major netball trophy New Zealand didn’t have in its glass cabinet in Auckland, and she’d helped acquire most of them.  

But win or lose, the tenacious defender knew the final series in a long, fairy-tale year for the Silver Ferns was part of a much bigger picture.

“To get the win makes a better story,” Burger said on the eve of their last game in Perth on Sunday - which ended up as a 53-46 loss to the Australian Diamonds. “It would help cement the faith and trust that people have had in us.

“But what we're doing in the bigger picture is pushing out the image of the strength of women’s sport, and how hard work can pay off. We’re looking outside of this series, and how we’ve influenced people – little girls and communities – by what we’ve done.”

Because not that long ago, Burger was one of those little girls inspired by the Silver Ferns. Only she was growing up 11,000km away, in South Africa, and her heroes were Proteas-turned-Ferns Irene van Dyk and Leana de Bruin. And she wanted to be just like them.

"If I could turn back time, to reassure my 18-year-old self that my dream would come true, I wouldn't believe it," she says.

Burger would rewind seven years - to the nervous, but strong-minded, teenager who left her family behind in South Africa to chase her dream of becoming a Silver Fern. The girl who'd have to bide her time in Wellington club netball for years before finally being spotted; who always had to “fight to show my worth.”

And if she could tell her 18-year-old self how to do it? She wouldn’t change a thing.

Burger’s story is one of perseverance, hard graft and self-belief.

Having tussled her way into the Silver Ferns last season, the now 26-year-old Burger was a stand-out in the two-win, two-loss Constellation Cup series against Australia, where she established herself as the Ferns’ starting goal defence.

Stepping into the shoes of retired legend Casey Kopua after their World Cup victory was never going to be easy, but Burger is beginning to prove herself an integral part of the new era of Silver Ferns.

And she’s done it by staying true to her motto: “Whenever an opportunity comes, grab it.”

Burger came off the bench in the first Constellation Cup test, and snaffled the game-turning intercept. In the second match, she replaced concussed goal defence Phoenix Karaka in the starting line-up and snatched five intercepts. She continued in the role in the final two tests.

In Sunday’s loss in Perth, Burger had her work cut out for her trying to stem the constant flow of ball to the Diamonds’ shooters in the first half, when the Ferns found themselves lagging by 16 at their lowest ebb.

But when Karaka came on at goal keep for Jane Watson, she helped Burger lift her game, and with the experienced head of former Ferns captain Katrina Rore outside the circle, they combined to close the gap to four in the last six minutes of the match. A final burst by the Aussies ensured they kept the transTasman trophy for a seventh year running.

It wasn’t the outcome the Ferns wanted to round out an otherwise unforgettable season, or to celebrate what was Maria Folau’s 150th – and probably final – test.

But still, Burger is grateful to have had the opportunity to play at goal defence in the Silver Ferns starting line-up.

“I’m still pinching myself,” she says.

Karin Burger shrugs off a challenge from Gretel Tippett in the final Constellation Cup test. Photo: Getty Images. 

Now that the tour is done, she says can look back at what unfolded in the past three weeks. “I’m very fortunate to be in this position. It shows how quickly things can change, how opportunities can arise, and making use of them,” she says.

Even though goal defence is where Burger spent her formative netball years, she’d recreated herself as a gutsy wing defence, in both the national champion Pulse side and the world champion Silver Ferns in Liverpool.

Despite her lack of height for a circle defender – she’s 1.84m (or 6ft) tall – she makes up for it with her athleticism, tenacity and her ability to read the play. “She’s got a lot in her toolbox,” coach Noeline Taurua says.

One of the most unpretentious athletes you’ll meet, Burger has found the switch in defence roles to be almost seamless.

“The goal D bib has come back around again, and I’ve been able to slot straight back in,” she says. "Fortunately, things happen instinctively, so I don’t really have to think about it too much.”

The transition happened suddenly, she says, during Silver Ferns trainings for this series. “That’s the funny thing. In training, things can happen that change everything so quickly,” she says.

In the same breath, Burger knows the bib is not hers by right. “I’m there now, I’m in it. But it doesn’t mean I’ll stay there. I have to keep working hard,” she says.

“Because I’m new, [the opposition] don’t probably know what I do. When people start to analyse your game well, you need to be smart and change it up.

“We all talked about it the other day, how amazing it is to have so many defenders in the group able to play so many positions. But that’s also what makes it exciting – you’re never sure of your position because everyone can play there. It’s just who’s needed at the time.”

Her links in the circle, with Watson and Karaka, are strengthening, and all three defenders are likely to be around international netball for a few years to come.

And the question now being asked is whether she and Rore will also switch positions in the Pulse next season. “Regardless of which way around we are, both of us being on the [transverse] line means we’re still doing it together,” she says.

Burger relished the time she’s spent with former Silver Ferns coach Yvonne Willering (another international goal defence), called in to work with the Ferns in this series.

“She’s been taking it back to what New Zealand is so good at – promoting intercepts and going for the ball. It’s about setting it up, having the patience, and then the right timing to react. I can definitely see the merit in it, and with more time practising that, I think it will be a very lethal weapon,” Burger says.

That’s one of Burger’s strengths: patience.

“It’s the way I was raised,” says Burger, who grew up in the small town of Vredendal, three hours drive from Cape Town. “I came from a really small school, and I had to work hard to be recognised. I’ve always had to fight to show my worth.

“I guess my family ingrained that in me. I also learned that if things don’t work out, then it’s not the right time. But if you keep working hard, it will happen – it’s about being patient.”

Karin Burger signs autographs for young fans at the parliamentary reception for the World Cup winners. Photo: Getty Images.

The 18-year-old Burger moved to Wellington determined to make her name in netball. Living with extended family she’d never met before, she joined a club in Hutt Valley. It took six seasons before she caught the eye of Central Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie.

Her introduction to international netball early in 2018 was not smooth. In just her third test, she was sinbinned for two minutes in the Ferns’ Quad Series loss to England – for deliberately obstructing English shooter Jo Harten, despite a warning. She became noticeably more disciplined after that.

She helped New Zealand to the Fast5 Netball World Series victory in Melbourne a year ago, and it was no shock when she was included in the Silver Ferns for the World Cup in July.

De Bruin, who gave Burger's mother sage advice before her daughter made her bold move to New Zealand, has seen Burger "grow immensely" in the past year.

"Her discipline has improved, her speed off the mark is deceiving and she has an amazing jump and the ability to steal great ball, cause they don't expect her to get up there like she does," the Silver Ferns centurion says. "She hustles all the time, and works tirelessly. 

"I'm so happy for her. It's not easy leaving your family and following your dreams on the other side of the world." 

There were plenty of times that homesickness almost convinced Burger to return home to South Africa, to her family and friends. But Burger is settled now, back with the Pulse for the 2020 ANZ Premiership and happy in her fulltime job, as sports development manager at Athletics Wellington.

“I know 100 percent it was the right thing to do. My mum and dad remind me of that quite a bit,” she says.

“You don’t realise what you’ve achieved until you get people from back home commenting on it and showing their support. You’ve actually done something real good, but you don’t know the impact and influence that it has on others.

“I’m not that big on accepting praise for it. When people ask me to do things or attend stuff, I’m like ‘why would you want me to do it?’  Then you realise you’ve actually done something good.”

* A documentary on the Silver Ferns’ incredible road to World Cup success, This Is Pure – The Silver Ferns Journey to Gold, will screen this Wednesday, 7pm, on Sky Sport 3.  It will also screen on Prime, on November 19 at 9.30pm.

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