de Bruin not calling time yet

Halfway through what could be her final season as a netballer, Leana de Bruin is in a state of bewilderment.

As captain of the new Northern Stars, de Bruin has been striving to find a solution to her side’s disappointing run in the ANZ Premiership.

And yet, the 138-test veteran has been playing out of her skin in the Stars’ defensive line. The oldest player in the league, turning 40 in July, de Bruin is still among the competition leaders in rebounds and deflections; she consistently tops the team’s high-intensity fitness tests. She should be elated.

But instead she’s frustrated, and you can read it on her face every time she snatches a vital intercept, only to see the ball being handed back to the opposition further down the court. “I’m not very good at hiding my emotions,” she laughs.

The Stars have notched up just two victories from eight encounters in their first season – both over the winless Mainland Tactix – leaving them fifth of the six teams.

“If we were all content to be the sixth team in our first season, it wouldn’t be a worry,” says de Bruin. “But we all feel really disappointed, because we had such a good pre-season showing which we thought we could only get better from, and we haven’t.”

And that, she admits, has been a challenge for someone who is so used to winning.

De Bruin retired from international netball last season, and the single mother of seven-year-old son Caleb has seriously thought about finally giving away the game to start a career in coaching.

But whether that will be at this season’s end is now a tough call. “Do I want to go out feeling so frustrated, week-in, week-out? Probably not. Do I want to go through the same thing next year? Definitely not,” she says.

“So, I’ll leave that decision for now, and focus on the next seven games.”

The Stars, created to bolster the new ANZ Premiership league, are a team of, well, stars. Six of the 10 players are or have been Silver Ferns. But there have been unwelcome hindrances. Emerging defender Holly Fowler’s season ended before it began with a knee ligament tear. Fijian international shooter Afa Rusivakula has also been sidelined with injury.

“I still love this game and I love every time I go out on court. Because I know I’m heading towards the end of it, I want to enjoy my last little stint.”

The team’s coach, Australian Julie Hoornweg, has an impressive CV, taking rookie teams through to win championships. De Bruin believes the problem lies not with the coaches, but the players on court.

“The most frustrating thing is knowing we have such potential in this team, but no one is really performing to their ability,” she says. “As a more experienced player, I’ve been in a lot of teams where you could nail down the problem and help the players. But it’s been really hard to pinpoint what the problem is.”

But when she thinks about it, she comes up with a possible explanation. “We are all trying too hard. No one goes out there to not play well, and we all get on really well off-court. It’s just the connections aren’t happening. And it can take years to build a new team.”

Having always thrived on challenges, De Bruin won’t be giving up on her team. “I’ve been in teams where we’ve fixed things,” she says. “A great example was in 2012, when the Magic lost four games in a row, but then we won the [Trans-Tasman] competition.”

She hopes this could be the week when the repairs begin. Tomorrow night the Stars take on the other Northern team, the Mystics, at the ASB Stadium in Kohimarama, in an old-fashioned Auckland derby. The Mystics are closest to them on the ladder, but are still six points clear.

De Bruin is feeling enthused. “We had a players’ meeting last week, and we talked about finding that fire in your belly, and really putting your body on the line,” she says. “And now it’s exciting, because we have seven games to try to turn this around, and hopefully this will be the start. If even one of us can make a difference to our game, then I’ll be happy.

“When we let the ball go, and have bursts of good netball, it’s fantastic. We just don’t do it often enough. But that will come with trust.”

The former South African international, who moved to New Zealand in 2001, says she has already taken much out of this season under the Stars. “They’re a great bunch of girls who you will be lifelong friends. And the captaincy is teaching me a lot about how I deal with people. I really enjoying working with the younger athletes, helping them to grow; I’m even learning from them. It’s made me realise I would definitely like to coach.”

Last season with Magic, back-to-back New Zealand Conference winners, de Bruin struggled with an ankle injury, but so far this year, her fitness has been flawless. “I feel great. I pride myself on my fitness and it’s what’s kept me in the game this long. When times get tough, my engine is my friend,” she says.

“One thing I’ve learned from past leaders is to lead by example. I see the young ones look at me and think ‘You’re just about 40 and still beating us all in the yo-yo test’. It shows I can still do that and there’s no reason they can’t do it too. I want to teach them that it might be hard to get to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.

“I still love this game and I love every time I go out on court. Because I know I’m heading towards the end of it, I want to enjoy my last little stint.”

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