Mastering the art of keeping all your balls in the air
Belinda Muller has managed major Kiwi sports teams in three different codes – netball, rugby and, now, cricket. The only difference, she's found, is the size of their balls.
It was supposed to last just three days.
A bit of a paperwork at a netball centre, to help out a friend of a friend.
Now, 18 years later, and after a fortuitous chain of events, Belinda Muller is manager of the White Ferns at the T20 World Cup in Australia. She was there in the dressing rooms at the WACA in Perth on Sunday, running the behind-the-scenes logistics, as the Kiwi women beat Sri Lanka by seven wickets in their opening game.
Along her madcap journey this far, Muller has managed the Magic, New Zealand’s most successful team in trans-Tasman netball – as the right-hand woman of Dame Noeline Taurua. And she’s taken care of emerging Black Ferns Sevens players, ushering them to tournaments around the world.
It wouldn’t have happened but for those three days, when she was in between jobs, with the youngest of her three children still at home.
Or if she hadn’t taken a leaf out of Taurua’s book – to “always try new ideas and experiences”.
Although she’s now regarded as one of the top managers in New Zealand sport, Muller has an admission: She’s never played any of the codes she’s worked for.
“I played soccer and tennis!” she laughs. More recently, she was a competitive body builder.
But it really doesn’t matter what sport she’s managing. Muller’s strength lies in taking care of people and understanding what they need.
The 56-year-old talked to LockerRoom the day before the White Ferns left Dunedin for Adelaide. The fifth T20 against South Africa that day was a wash-out, so she was in the changing rooms at the University of Otago Oval, packing – and unpacking – bags, trying to get the luggage below the airline weight limit.
The trouble, she explains, is balls.
“Cricket balls are so heavy!” Muller says. “Whenever I’ve travelled with netball or rugby, we’ve deflated the balls. There’s nothing in those sports that would take up that quite that much weight.
“I’m pretty well-travelled over the three codes now, and the difference with cricket is the gear they need. Otherwise it’s all the same. I just have to make sure I have my 23 people on the plane, with everything they need.”
Keeping tabs on them isn’t a problem. “I used to be a teacher, and I looked after holiday programmes, taking 150 kids to Hamilton Zoo. So I’m used to doing head counts,” she says.
She’s been in the White Ferns role for just a month, but she’s learning as she goes.
“It’s really exciting. I have all my checklists in place, and I ask a lot of questions. I know I’m not going into this on my own,” she says.
“I have really good support staff who have been to World Cups before. The players are a great help, telling me: ‘Oh B, this is how this usually works’.”
Born and raised in Morrinsville, Muller did a BA in psychology at the University of Waikato, then a diploma in teaching before moving to Australia. She returned to Mt Maunganui with three children and taught primary school kids.
“I was taking a break from teaching when a friend said ‘I’ve got a friend who works in netball, who has some admin stuff she needs help with. It’s just for three days’,” Muller recalls the conversation back in 2002.
Muller stayed on at Netball Bay of Plenty, and helped out with the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic - booking the flights and accommodation for the team playing in the ANZ Championship. When the Magic's manager retired, coach Noeline Taurua asked Muller to apply for the job.
“We worked together for seven years,” Muller says, including 2012 - the year the Magic became the only New Zealand team to ever win the trans-Tasman tussle.
“We had to fight really hard for that. We were at the bottom of the table, we’d never been there before but we knew we just had to chip away at it.
“I learned a whole lot from Noeline and I’ve taken that forward into my other roles. She thinks outside the box and loves to try new things; she won’t just follow ‘this is how it’s done…’
“She’s always open to new ideas and experiences. Which is how I’ve ended up managing cricket.”
But in between these two roles, Muller was also managed a string of rugby teams, including the Black Ferns Sevens development team.
After the Magic, she worked at Sport Bay of Plenty, where she still works today (when she isn’t on tour) as the youth sports systems advisor.
A friend also working there, former New Zealand men’s netball player Paul Pou, was coaching the Rangataua women’s rugby team and needed a manager.
“I said ‘No thanks, I don’t know anything about rugby, and I’m having a break from managing’,” Muller says. “Next thing I see my name on a message group as the manager for the Rangataua rugby team. So I got railroaded into it.
“But it turned out I really enjoyed it because it was club, grassroots sport.” She’s managed the team for the last three seasons.
For the last two years, the pair have also coached and managed at the Red Bull Ignite7s tournament, discovering talent for the New Zealand Sevens sides.
Muller was told she didn’t have enough rugby experience when she first applied for the role of Black Ferns Sevens development squad manager. “So that year I managed six rugby teams, and when the role came around again I got it,” she says.
Muller took the development squad to tournaments in Japan and Fiji, and helped out with the Black Ferns Sevens. Aspiring young players like Mahina Paul, Montessa Tairakena and Isla Norman-Bell have come under her watch.
She's been asked to coach more rugby teams, but is mindful of her responsibilities to cricket, and to her full-time employer, Sport BOP, who have been "very understanding". She also misses her two grand-daughters when she's away.
Muller didn’t expect to get the White Ferns role when she threw her hat in the ring, again because she had no background in the sport. But her experience as a manager of successful teams was obviously more than enough.
“You’re managing people. Making sure everyone – players or support staff - have what they need to do their job the best they can,” she says.
“I’ve learnt a lot on the job in the last month with cricket, to the point where I now know what they’re doing strategically on the field.
“I played cricket once at high school to make up numbers, and I really enjoyed it. While I’m away, Sport Bay Of Plenty have entered a women’s team in a cricket tournament, and I wish I was there to have a crack at it. But maybe next time.”
Maybe by then, she'll have a cricket world champions title under her belt.
* All White Ferns games at the T20 World Cup are live on Sky Sport. They meet India on Thursday (SS2, 5pm) and Bangladesh on Sunday (SS3, 1pm).