When they were Queens - the 1967 world champion Silver Ferns reunite
It’s 50 years since New Zealand were first crowned world netball champions. So it’s fitting that the 1967 Silver Ferns will reunite in Hamilton at tonight's clash for the Taini Jamison Trophy – named in honour of their incredible coach.
In her 90th year, Taini Jamison remains the most successful Silver Ferns coach in the history of netball, with a 90 percent winning record.
She’s still devoted to the game, and still celebrated as one of the pioneers of international netball – having led New Zealand to their first world championship victory in 1967; a victory made sweeter by beating the reigning world champs Australia on their home turf.
When the 2017 Silver Ferns play the English Roses tonight in the deciding third test, they’ll be playing for the Taini Jamison Trophy, introduced in 2008 to be contested when any netballing nation – other than Australia – meets the Ferns on New Zealand soil.
Most of the 1967 team, including Jamison, will be at the game in Hamilton, and will be honoured for their ground-breaking victory half a century ago. It’s a far cry from the era in which they won, when their feat went almost unheralded back at home.
New Zealand fielded an outstanding team half a century ago; a team driven by a one-goal loss to the Australians four years earlier, which denied them the crown at the first world tournament in England (when the game was still known as “basketball”).
Their captain was Judy Blair, one of the first players chosen in multiple Silver Ferns sides. Her success record as New Zealand captain stands at 100 percent – after the Ferns won seven from seven at the world tournament in Perth. When her daughter Belinda Charteris played her first international in 1994, they became the first mother and daughter Silver Ferns.
There was Joan Harnett - netball’s pin-up girl through the 1960s and early ‘70s, credited with changing the public’s perception of the sport in New Zealand - who was named world player of the tournament. And they boasted the impenetrable defensive duo of “Billie and Tilly” (Irwin and Vercoe) who played alongside each other both at home in Rotorua, and for New Zealand.
And then there was Mirth Solomon. With her distinctive left-handed shot at goal, the Rotorua school teacher and new mum was the highest-scoring shooter in Perth. It was Solomon who led the Silver Ferns in a victory haka after they won their first of four world titles.
Elegant and wise at 78, Solomon has no trouble turning the clock back 50 years. She remembers Jamison as a big-hearted, liberal coach, but one who didn’t stand for nonsense.
“The wonderful thing about Taini is that she allowed us to express ourselves on court. She left a lot of the coaching out there to the players, which gave us confidence. But when she had had enough of us, we all knew!” Solomon says.
Still living in Rotorua, Solomon marvels at how much the game has changed in half a century. “If we were in our heyday, and had to play the girls of today, we would get butchered! It’s so much more physical, and the players are so very fit. Yet I still believe we played a more cunning, more beautiful game.”
But the dedication, fortitude and passion of today’s Silver Ferns is just the same as it was in Solomon’s heyday.
In 1963, Solomon travelled by ship to England for that first world tournament. In the lead-up, she taught at Mamaku Primary School, in the rugged hills west of Rotorua. “I’d catch the 7am bus to school, then I’d shoot goals until the bell rang to go into the classroom. I’d shoot for the whole lunch hour, and again after school until I caught the bus back to Rotorua. On my way home, I’d stop at Kuirau Park and go for a run,” she recalls.
Four years later, when Solomon was the No.1 goal shoot in an experienced New Zealand side bound for Perth, she had her first daughter, Kim. But she hadn’t lost any of her commitment to netball.
“I used to take her down to the courts in her pram, while I practised,” she says. “I knew that if I really wanted this, I had to give it everything I had. We were given fitness charts, but really we had to decide for ourselves how much we wanted to train. If you wanted to be in the top seven, you knew you had to work for it.”
She often trained with her husband, Roger, a club rugby coach in Rotorua. But she also spent countless hours alone, perfecting her accurate shooting style. “I never stood still to shoot. When I caught the ball in the circle I was already into the rhythm of shooting. I’d be telling myself the whole time ‘You can do this! You haven’t spent hours out in the rain doing this for nothing’.”
In Perth, Solomon played alongside Harnett, a legendary goal attack, who she describes as superb, but exacting. “She worked so hard outside the circle, and when she passed it in to me, there were no beg your pardons – the look on her face said ‘Don’t you pass it - shoot it, Mirth!’ We had a great rapport.”
Solomon pays much credit for that inaugural world title success to an exceptional camaraderie across the Kiwi team. “We were very lucky we all got on so well together. And we still do. The lovely thing about this team was that we could tell each other off on court, and no-one took offence. We’d yell: ‘C’mon guys, get to it, up the ante! We’ve got to get this right.’”
Playing outdoors on concrete courts, dressed in black gym frocks, the New Zealanders beat South Africa by just two goals in their opening game of the tournament, before decisive wins over Scotland, England, Trinidad & Tobago, and Singapore.
When it came to the deciding final match against Australia, before a crowd of 8000, both teams were unbeaten. But the New Zealanders had a notable advantage: familiarity. The core of the side had played together in England four years earlier.
In contrast, the Australians had no survivors from their 1963 world title victory. Midcourter Gaye Teede (later captain and coach of Australia) lamented that her team, although chosen a year earlier, didn’t get together until the week of the tournament in Perth.
In what became typical of Transtasman contests, the final match was virtually goal-for-goal. But the New Zealanders rattled their rivals in the final quarter, coming from a one-goal deficit to win 40-34, and win world champion honours.
“We struggled with New Zealand, who had retained three or four of their 1963 team,” Teede recalled years later. “We were left with a sense of having underachieved, and competitive people don’t like that sense because the fire in the belly burns.” Sure enough, in 1971, the determined Aussies fought back to reclaim the title in Jamaica.
Solomon will never forget the jubilation of winning that final game in Perth, and the moment when celebrated Maori composer Tommy Taurima stood up in the bleachers and led the crowd in a mass haka, after she had led the team haka on court.
“When we got home, we didn’t get the recognition that the All Blacks would,” says Solomon, who continued her involvement with netball as a top-level umpire and president of Netball Rotorua until last year. “But the most wonderful thing was going to the New Zealand championship tournament that year, and the kudos came then. It was a fantastic feeling.”
They are about to receive that deserved praise and admiration once again.
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