The buzz, the crowds and cowbells - netball’s back
Suzanne McFadden soaks up the return of top netball in an intense weekend in front of small, but enthusiastic crowds
For once, Phoenix Karaka didn’t mind the cacophony of cowbells.
If anything, the Northern Mystics captain welcomed the crowd noise, even if the mooloo bells were ringing out for her Magic opposition in the first game back after a three-month, pandemic-forced break in the ANZ Premiership.
It didn’t matter to Karaka that there were fewer than 500 people in the bleachers flanking just one side of the court at the Auckland Netball Centre on Friday night; that in an invitation-only crowd of family and friends, her mum was her only personal fan.
Karaka simply appreciated that there was a crowd. She knew how close it had come to playing in front of an empty stand, or maybe a sea of cardboard cut-outs had Netball New Zealand stretched their budget that far.
“The crowd is the eighth player, whether they’re on your team or not,” Karaka says. “The crowd brings the intensity, especially when something good happens. They also bring the fire in the belly to the defending team to really fight back.
“Considering it’s a much smaller crowd than we’re used to, the intensity was still there, which was really good. It was something our players were quite nervous about.
“It was nice to hear the cowbells out there; to hear a crowd out there. And I think we had them on our side.” If, indeed, the crowd was the Mystics’ eighth player, then they played their role in a 47-40 victory over the Magic.
Two days later, Central Pulse wing attack Maddy Gordon was thankful for her cheer squad amid the Auckland crowd.
The 20-year-old usually blocks out the crowd noise, “so nothing around me fazes me,” she says. “But this time I could actually hear my family. It was great.”
Maybe the 11-strong support team, many of them from her hometown of Whangārei, nudged Gordon to work just that little bit harder on Sunday night (the first game back with a paying crowd). Deftly feeding shooters Aliyah Dunn and Ameliaranne Ekenasio - who together shot close-to-perfect statistics - Gordon ended up the MVP in the Pulse’s clinical 63-39 dispatch of the Northern Stars.
“It was so good to be back,” says Gordon, fast becoming one of the players pushing for national honours. “When netball stopped [after one round] I was so absolutely gutted. We’d played that first game and had a taste of what we could do.
“But we all came off the court tonight and said how much fun we’d had out there. Even though the 12-minute quarters still felt like 15; it was really hard work.”
Two months ago, Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie sat at her kitchen table and wondered: will there be any netball this season?
Wyllie has sat courtside at all three games in Auckland this weekend – and she’ll be back again tonight – wearing a wide smile. It’s not a sign of smugness or complacency; it’s part happiness, part-relief.
“There’s just an overwhelming feeling of joy. There’s lightness. The kids are back; the colour is back. The buzz of the crowd is lifting the players,” she says.
“I think there’s a deep understanding this could have been a very different scenario. And fortunately we’re not there.”
The ANZ Premiership is the only professional netball competition in the world back up and running. England have had to cancel their 2020 Superleague; the Australians have marked down August 1 to start Super Netball.
With the help of the “netball whanau” of sponsors and supporters, and government relief funding, Netball NZ pulled together a 10-week alternative draw, with up to five games a week, shorter matches and the first six weeks all played at one venue, with a maximum crowd of 500.
“There are so many moving parts to this situation which we can’t control or influence. All we could do was take control of the things we could make good decisions on, and try to do the right thing for everyone involved,” Wyllie says. “Fortunately we’ve come to a place where its all knitted in nicely.”
They also took the opportunity to trial new things - a massive wall of interactive screens behind the player benches, and music playing right through the games. Stars captain Grace Kara, making her 150th national league appearance against the Tactix tonight, will have netball's first 'player cam' focused on her the entire match (on Sky Sport 50).
This may not be exactly the domestic competition that Netball NZ had planned for 2020. “But it could be a new version, a rethinking of a competition for the future as well,” Wyllie says.
Phoenix Karaka appreciates netball in her life more than ever.
The Silver Ferns defender worked right through lockdown, as a psychiatric assessor, which made her realise just how much she valued her sport.
“While I was working, I was like, ‘Nah, this is not for me, I need to stay in netball as long as possible’,” she admits. “Being back in the Mystics environment has been fun for me. I’m really cherishing the opportunities I have with netball now.”
Karaka trained in lockdown alongside her partner, All Black Patrick Tuipulotu, but he was missing from the stands for her return – in Hamilton, preparing to lead his Blues team [also successfully] against the Chiefs on Saturday.
Her nana was meant to be there, too. “But with the uncertainty of the new coronavirus cases, it was best she stayed home, and watch from the comfort of her bed,” Karaka says.
After the game, Karaka admitted the condensed quarters were tougher than her team-mates had expected.
“During training we’ve been saying, the quarters are shorter, it will be easy. But by the second quarter we were like, ‘Oh my god, this is a lot harder than we thought’,” she says.
“You want to keep up the intensity, so you really have to be consistent the entire 12 minutes. With 15 minutes, you have a buffer. And if you’re a few goals down, you don’t have as much time to get back.” The Mystics, who have a very young attack this season, led the Magic by at least three at every quarter.
“I’m a pretty proud captain,” Karaka says. “We’re not putting too much pressure on the young ones, but we do have the expectation that they need to step up.”
Few Tactix fans could make the haul to Auckland to see their first game back against neighbours, the Southern Steel, on Saturday. But still they banded together in Christchurch - through the generosity of a police officer.
A free ‘fanzone’ - hastily set up at the Christchurch Netball Centre with a big screen, popcorn and expert analysis – was the brainchild of former Tactix coach and Black Fern rugby star Helen Mahon-Stroud, who’s also local policewoman.
The Tactix have had it tougher than most this season – Netball Mainland going into liquidation during lockdown, and the team securing just one home game in the revised 10-week draw.
“Our philosophy is we’ve been dealt this hand, it’s not cool, but let’s make the most of it,” says Anna Galvan, a former Silver Fern now the Christchurch Netball Centre chair.
Fans brought their bean bags and sat in front of a 100-inch screen (organised by Mahon-Stroud and installed for the season by Harvey Norman); Sky beamed the game live into the clubrooms; and another ex-Silver Fern, Maree Bowden, gave her halftime analysis. “Fans from all walks of life came together as a community with a shared passion,” Galvan says.
After the Tactix’ 43-36 win over the Steel, Galvan predicted the team who finished fifth in 2019, would fire this season.
“I don’t think you can underestimate the resilience of the people of Canterbury,” she says.
“There’s such a level of maturity in the team I haven’t seen for a long time. They look fit and fast and sharp, and they're playing as a team.”
The fanzone will open whenever the Tactix have Saturday afternoon games. Tonight, they’re back on court against the Stars.