Tania Dalton's daughter Tayla grabs a biscuit from her mum's mouth as Temepara George looks on during the Silver Ferns' team announcement in 2003. Photo: Getty Images

Tania Dalton (née Nicholson)

26 November 1971 – 1 March 2017

Tania Dalton was six-foot tall, and bulletproof, we thought. Healthy, happy, generous – always laughing, joking, giving.

At 45, a decade after she retired from netball’s top echelon, she was still so fit – playing sport in between coaching and managing her children’s sports teams.

She was about to wrap up her touch rugby season with her social Pita Pit team this week, and then start netball training for the World Masters Games in Auckland next month. That team includes fellow Silver Fern shooter Leonie Leaver and other former team-mates from her national league netball days.

Yesterday the team changed its name to “The T-Bags”, in honour of Dalton, nicknamed T-Bag. Apparently, she enjoyed a cup of tea.

But it turns out no one is bulletproof. And netball’s incredibly close and loyal sorority lost a hugely valued sister when Dalton quietly passed away today, after her life support system was turned off on Tuesday afternoon.

Keeping vigil at her bedside at Auckland Hospital had been her husband Duane, who represented New Zealand in surf lifesaving, and their three children – Tayla, Charlie and Matthew. Since she suffered a rupture of an internal carotid artery during a touch rugby game last Thursday, near her hometown of Takapuna, Dalton has been visited by a stream of old netball friends. They’ve laughed, cried and painted her toenails.

She had the ability to always make you feel like a long-lost mate. Having reported on netball for the last three decades, I watched a young, rangy Carmel College girl named Tania Nicholson flash through the North Harbour club ranks all the way to the Silver Ferns.

In recent years, we’d bump into each other most weeks at the North Shore Events Centre, where our kids played high school basketball. We’d stop, have a quick natter, a peck on the cheek (she’d have to bend down to reach mine), and carry on with our rushed daily lives. It was our family’s after-game ritual to stop for dinner at Pita Pit – the successful restaurant franchise Dalton owned with her husband and their business partner, Chris Henderson.

I’d see her at high-profile netball games, where she would be commentating for Sky Sport – even in small heels, she seemed outrageously taller than her 1.84m.

Part of that though was because of her towering personality. Sheryl, Lady Wells, the former manager of the Silver Ferns, called Dalton “The Fun Fern”. With a wicked sense of humour, and an infectious laugh, she was often at the centre of team high-jinks; famous for dancing on tabletops.

Her international netball career had its ups and downs. For much of it, she vied for the goal shooting spots with the legendary Irene van Dyk. Over a decade, on and off, Dalton played just 12 tests.

She was first chosen as a Silver Fern in 1995, making her debut against South Africa the following year. But a string of injuries consigned her to the bench, knocking her confidence. It was never in her nature to give up, and she fought back to become the top shooter in the national league, reinstated in the New Zealand team in 2000.

Dalton, who’d been a high school PE teacher, would stop playing to have children, then return to the court even stronger. Her career highlight was being part of the Silver Ferns side who won the 2003 world championships in Jamaica.

She was crafty and quick; great at slinking along the baseline. She was also known as “The Step-in Girl” – her trademark style was to take an extra step towards the hoop before she shot, even when she seemed directly beneath it.

It was domestic netball where Dalton made her biggest impact. Back in the days of the national league, she starred for the Northern Force and the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic.

The day after Dalton had her first child, daughter Tayla (now 15), Southland coaching icon Robyn Broughton phoned and invited her to join the Southern Sting. It meant flying from Auckland to Invercargill every Thursday with the baby, staying at Broughton’s house, then training and playing with the team on the weekend. Over the next five seasons, Broughton became a surrogate grandmother to Tayla, and then Dalton’s first son, Charlie.

The girl from Auckland’s North Shore became one of Southland’s favourite daughters, helping the Sting to win three national league titles.

Although she retired in 2007, withdrawing from the Silver Ferns squad at the age of 35, she made a one-week comeback at 39, when Broughton sent out an SOS for her to fill a gap in the Southern Steel line-up for the opening game of the 2011 ANZ Championship.

She never really left netball. In her retirement, Dalton joined Sky Sport’s commentary team, alongside fellow internationals Anna Stanley, Bernice Mene, Temepara Bailey and Adine Wilson. Her cheekiness and spirit shone through on screen.

She lined up with other ex-internationals playing in an Auckland social league for College Rifles Old Girls. “I called us the ‘Has-beens’,” Dalton said in a New Zealand Women’s Weekly story in 2014. “We just turned up five minutes before the game and played. The recovery was a bit different. Instead of ice baths, it was anti-inflammatory cream and a glass of wine.”

After bringing the Canadian Pita Pit franchise to New Zealand in 2006, and growing it to almost 100 stores around the country, the Daltons have been able to give back to netball through sponsorship. Tania also coached her daughter’s teams, including the North Harbour Under15 side to last year’s national final, and managed her son’s basketball team.

If she had a fault, it was that she was terrible at saying no; a trait she admitted to having all her life. Nothing was ever a problem for her: generously giving her time to netball, helping old team-mates with their charitable causes, and giving advice to young players.

The advice was usually: “Be yourself; give it your all, but play for the love of the game.” It was the way she played – always with intensity, but with a degree of happy nonchalance.

When Duane Dalton opened the door of her hospital room to any friends who wanted to see her, he obviously knew it was what Tania would have wanted. She loved people, she loved laughter.

And as Irene van Dyk wrote in a moving Facebook tribute to her friend T-Bag: “She’ll be dancing to Sweet Caroline forever.”

*This story first appeared on Summer Newsroom

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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