The towering Fern aiming to cut down the Diamonds

It seems like eons since the Silver Ferns had a defender with the height of Kelly Jury. The 20-year-old may become their most potent weapon against Australia’s giant goal shoot in the seesaw battle for netball world supremacy.

It’s still pinned to her bedroom wall back in the family farmhouse in Makahu, a remote rural settlement in Taranaki, where there’s still no wi-fi or cell-phone coverage. A now-faded, but still precious poster of the 2007 Silver Ferns, which 11-year-old Kelly Jury kept from the very first netball test she went to see.

Back then, she lay in her bed and made a vow – to meet every player in that line-up. A decade later, she’s been coached by a few of them, and played with, or against, the rest.

But more importantly, one of those players has stepped out of that poster and become her real-life mentor: the illustrious defender and captain Casey Kopua. “I can’t even find the words to describe how influential she’s been to me,” Jury says.

Jury’s rise to Silver Ferns status has almost been perfectly timed with Kopua’s retirement from international netball. As Kopua steps out after 101 tests for New Zealand, the 20-year-old Jury has almost immediately slipped into her goal keep bib.

One thing she has over Kopua (other than age) is her height. At 1.92m – or six-foot-three in imperial measure – Jury is one of the tallest Silver Ferns to have worn the black dress.

And her height is desperately needed, as the Ferns figure out a way to combat Australia’s “smiling assassin” – the towering shooter and new Diamonds captain, Caitlin Bassett. It’s likely Jury will get her chance - either during the international Quad Series, starting in Brisbane on Saturday, or the Constellation Cup in October.

If it hadn’t been for a dislocated thumb – one of netball’s most common mishaps – Jury’s exceptional defensive talents may never have been discovered.

“At first I was stunned. I expected a legend like her to tell me where to go! But it taught me that I have to think for myself, and have the confidence to tell Casey Kopua - one of the best defenders the world has ever seen – what to do. It made me step up."

- Kelly Jury

The long, lean teenager – then a boarder at New Plymouth Girls High School - had already hit her full height at the age of 17, and had always been a shooter. At least until the fateful day she dislodged that digit playing in a school match.

“I had to wear a cast on my right, shooting hand, which meant I couldn’t balance the ball to shoot. I really wanted to keep playing, so they took me down to the other end of the court. And I loved it so much, I never wanted to go back to shooting,” she says.

“Being a tall shooter, I was always told just to stand there and hold. But I felt so free in defence, where I could run anywhere. I hadn’t realised what I’d been missing out on - I found a new love for the game that I never knew existed.

“Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t hurt my thumb? Looking back, I’d go through that pain all again to discover that I was a defender.”

There were a few former coaches who weren’t impressed with Jury’s decision to switch ends: “They had aspirations for me to be the next Irene van Dyk. But I wanted to be the next Casey Kopua.”

When Jury made the move to Hamilton to join the Magic in the final year of the ANZ Championship, a pregnant Kopua became one of her coaches. This season, the first of the ANZ Premiership, they made a formidable duo as Magic’s circle defence.

But in their first game together, Jury was immediately taken aback.

“I learned that she is not a player who yells at you, and directs you. She actually turns around and asks you: ‘What do you want from me, what do you want me to do?’

“At first I was stunned. I expected a legend like her to tell me where to go! But it taught me that I have to think for myself, and have the confidence to tell Casey Kopua - one of the best defenders the world has ever seen – what to do. It made me step up.

“To be able to feed off her knowledge would be any netballer’s dream. She’s been a huge factor in me making it this far.”

Jury made her Silver Ferns debut earlier this year, against England also in the Quad Series. She’s already a two-time world champion – part of the FAST5 Ferns who won last year’s FAST5 World Series, and the New Zealand Under-21 side who took out the World Youth Cup in Botswana this July.

“The majority of our Under-21 team had been together for three years, so to walk away with a gold medal around our necks - and see Australia with the silver – was incredible. It’s still quite unbelievable we won, but also sad that it’s all over,” she says.

Jury’s long reach and agility were vital assets in that victory, and that was acknowledged with her player of the match award in the 60-57 final win over Australia.

Her height, she says, benefits elements of her game – “my lean over the shot, and my rebounding, “but it doesn’t necessarily help me to get to those low balls… it’s something I have been working on.”

Jury chats with Silver Ferns coach Janine Southby during a post-match warm down. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

She goes to the gym every day.

Coming up against Caitlin Basset, the 1.97m Australian goal shoot and captain, is a challenge Jury would relish when the Ferns meet the Diamonds first in the Quad Series, in Invercargill on September 3, and then in the four-test Constellation Cup in October.

“I played against [Basset] once, last year when the Magic played the Fever. She has grown in her game, but I feel that I’ve really grown in my game as well,” she says. “I think people are really excited to see how I’ll be able to compete with her because we are so similar in height.

“I also think the international season will be much more exciting this year, because we haven’t played against the Australians week-in, week-out; no-one knows how we are going to compete against each other.”

Jury’s jam-packed netball career – plus her part-time studies towards a sports and leisure degree - means she’s only been home to the family’s 1900ha sheep and beef farm three times this year. The old netball hoop her dad put up has now rusted away, but the inspirational poster remains.

She also has the timeline she wrote as a schoolgirl in the Sport Taranaki Future Champions programme. “I planned to be a Silver Fern by the end of 2019,” she says.

Jury is already well ahead of her time.

The Silver Ferns open their 10-test international season against the South African Proteas on Saturday (7pm NZ time) in Brisbane.

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