Netball’s new dawn promises return to Kiwi way

It was a scene you wouldn’t see anywhere else in the world of professional sport. New Zealand’s top 70 netballers dossing down on mattresses, in neat rows across a marae floor.

Two weekends ago, the six teams in the new ANZ Premiership came together in the Kapiti Coast town of Otaki for a pre-season hit-out. They were welcomed on to Te Wānanga O Raukawa with a stirring pōwhiri; they sung waiata-a-ringa (Māori action songs) together; they were taught ma rākau - the Māori art of weaponry - wielding long thin sticks. And then they went into battle against each other, but with round balls.

It was the first time in her 17 years in New Zealand that Leana de Bruin, captain of the new Northern Stars side, had stayed on a marae. “It took some of us out of our comfort zone,” she says. For Southern Steel sisters Te Paea and Te Huniga Reo Selby-Rickit, it was a homecoming, back to their Otaki roots.

“I think we underestimated the power of all being together in one place,” Central Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie says. “It makes a huge difference for connectivity. The players had meals together and talked with one another. But when they got out on court, they were all totally focused on beating each other.”

Whether it was intentional or not, the weekend tournament in Otaki was emblematic of a new era in New Zealand netball. The newly-formed national league, which starts this weekend, aims to bring the top echelon of the sport back together, and reclaim the uniqueness and mana of the New Zealand game.

It may sound corny but, having parted company with Australia after a nine-year relationship that wasn’t always nurturing or constructive, New Zealand netball needs to find itself again.

The most enduring memories of the transTasman ANZ Championship are of the Australian teams winning, and the New Zealand teams chasing. On defence, our players were drawn into playing the Australian one-on-one style; on attack, we tried to emulate the legendary Diamonds star Sharelle McMahon’s running game, at the expense of our own fox-like cunning and flair.

Provincial pride was wounded, because the focus was often purely on finally beating the Australians.

It wasn’t all bad. The netball was world-class; fast and furious, albeit more physical. A female sport claimed prime-time television viewing for games outside of test matches. Players became more professional, especially in their approach to training, and franchises evolved to become businesses.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what will be missed in the aftermath of the break-up, other than the challenge of playing against the Aussies week in, week out. The Silver Ferns’ international results over the last decade prove that the league did little to grow New Zealand’s game, but reinforced the strength of the Australians.

“The Aussies seem to bring out the best in you on court, and you want to play them because unfortunately they are the best in the world at the moment,” de Bruin says. “I certainly won’t miss them getting away with murder on court!

“But there’s no reason why we can’t bring the best out against each other now. We have phenomenal athletes in New Zealand, and everyone wants bragging rights to be the best team in the country.”

Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic were the only team to win the ANZ title, and it only happened once – back in 2012. “This competition will bring out a totally different game,” de Bruin says, “because now the final is going to be between two New Zealand teams, played in New Zealand – and that’s what we’ve always strived for.”

The youngest player in the ANZ Premiership, 16-year-old Central Pulse shooter Tiana Metuarau, evades the league’s most experienced player – Northern Stars’ Leana de Bruin - at the preseason tournament in Otaki. Picture: Michael Bradley Photography

Having sole ownership of the new league means Netball NZ can enforce the rules it believes will make the game here better. With unlimited rolling substitutions, players no longer have to fake an injury to leave the court. Extra-time periods mean there will no longer be the disappointment of a game left undecided.

Team numbers have been cut from 12 to 10. “That’s all I had when I coached school teams – it was all you could fit in a minivan,” McCausland-Durie laughs. “It gives players more opportunities for game time, and puts them under pressure to prove they have variety; that they are a genuine option.” Players in the Beko League, created last season to allow the next tier of talent to make a smoother transition into the elite ranks, will also keep the ANZ Premiership netballers honest.

To further ensure the evolution of New Zealand netball, each of the six franchises has been restricted to one import player. In the new Super Netball league across the Tasman, now its sixth round, there is no limit to the number of foreign players in its teams.

Netball NZ CEO Jennie Wyllie says if global netball is strong, New Zealand will “do its part” to help foster the talent of other nations – like Jamaican shooter Jhaniele Fowler-Reid, now in her fifth season with the Steel. “But if you take actions which potentially jeopardise international netball offshore for your own competition, then you have to reconsider what you’re doing.”

While the new league will strengthen New Zealand’s player base and reinvigorate the style of netball they were once feared for, there’s one area that may need a little more work to fortify - winning over fans.

New Zealand netball fans are fiercely loyal – you see it in the sea of silver wigs and hear it in the eardrum-splitting thunder-sticks. But there’s nothing they love more than a good stoush with the Aussies.

McCausland-Durie admits the Pulse’s fan base has fallen off slightly this season; a hesitation, perhaps, about buying in to something new. But there are more opportunities than normal to claim them back, with every game in the three-round league televised live on SKY Sport on a Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. The Australians, in contrast, have only managed to secure two live games a week on their TV networks (the rest are delayed or live streamed).

Three Super Sundays will feature all six Kiwi teams playing at the same venue – the first in Hamilton this weekend.

And if you’re pining for international conflict, the Silver Ferns will play 15 tests this year – five more than usual – and Netball NZ are working on a separate Super Club competition featuring the top sides from around the world.

“This is our vision of elite netball coming to light,” Wyllie says. “I think back 15 years ago, being amazed watching the Silver Ferns play with that aerial style, the cunning, speed and transition of the ball downcourt; those breath-taking moments wondering whether the ball would safely reach its destination. When it came off, it was magical. This is our chance to stamp our point of difference again – to get our mojo back.”

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