No player has ever left Maria Tutaia, netball legend, so wonderstruck.
“I’d never been in awe of an athlete – of any calibre or field – until I met Bailey ‘WTF’ Mes,” Tutaia texts from Brisbane, when asked to describe her Silver Ferns shooting partner.
“No matter what ball you pass to her, she will commit her body and her mind to it; 97.5 percent of the time she will get it. The other 2.5 percent is because the pass was terrible. Her movement to lose her defender in a small, confined space, her aerial play, and her will to learn, is mind-boggling.
“Above all that, and most importantly, she’s an ace chick. And she’s already stamping her mark as being one of the greats of the game.”
High praise indeed from one of the best.
Yet Mes has been a kind of enigma in netball. Her elite-level career has been punctuated with pauses, false starts and shudders.
She has always been fleet of foot, with an astonishing vertical leap, making her one of the best attacking rebounders the game has seen; and a canny ability to capture the ball from impossible places. But her shooting accuracy at times has been wobbly; her lean frame sometimes overshadowed by the most menacing defenders.
But in 2017, the 28-year-old Mes is revealing her evolution into an all-round goal shoot. A part-time student of photography, she’s sharpened her shooting on the court too.
After the first test of this latest Quad Series against South Africa, Australian journalists were impressed by her dominance in the circle – particularly her improved accuracy (shooting 35 from 36; her only miss in the dying seconds), her diversity of moves, and her “graciousness” when umpire calls went against her. What had she done in the last year to turn her game around, they asked?
Silver Ferns coach Janine Southby gave her answer after the second test on Wednesday night – a tough, last-gasp loss to a more experienced English Roses side.
“The big thing with Bailey is her belief. People have a perception that players become stars overnight. You look back at all the greats, and there’s probably a lot of work they did in their early stages that was building to be the best they could be. That’s Bailey,” Southby says.
“She looks at everything, she analyses everything. She takes feedback on board. She works extremely hard off the court, and I think we are seeing the benefits of that now. I know she’s still not where she wants to be, and she will keep pushing.”
Mes had a rough start to the sharp end of her career, spending her first three seasons collecting splinters on the Northern Mystics’ bench. When Wai Taumaunu, the New Zealand coach at the time, recognised her promise and chose her in the 2012 Silver Ferns squad, Mes cried in shock.
“My shooting is pretty constant, every day. Nailing the technique has become huge.”
Such was the dominance of Irene van Dyk and Tutaia at the time, Mes had to try to make her mark in the midcourt. It wasn’t where she really wanted to be. When she got her chance under the hoop, she was often wracked by nerves, because she’d spent so little game time there.
After being sidelined by a nasty knee injury in 2013, Mes finally stepped up to frontline shooter for two seasons with the Mainland Tactix, and starred at goal shoot for New Zealand at the 2015 World Cup in Sydney.
“Bailey has consistently been our goal shoot for the last couple of years now, but previous to that she was all over the show – and that’s tough on a player,” Southby says. “The fact she’s had consistent game time at goal shoot with her franchise and the Silver Ferns is now really starting to show.”
Mes – driven and poker-faced on the court, softly-spoken and warm off it – laughs when she considers how she’s upped her game.
“It’s funny when you look at the whole journey to get here,” she says. “I guess I’ve always tried to do as much I can to learn as much as I can. The consistency that’s been lacking in previous years, it’s come through a constant building process.
“My shooting is pretty constant, every day. Nailing the technique has become huge.
“I’ve learned to cope with the physicality, but the training is pretty intense. I’m getting hit from every angle.”
She gets the defenders amongst her team-mates to push her around at practice: “They’re pretty good at that when I tell them to.”
There’s been a mental change too; she’s learned strategies to “reset” out on court.
Mes credits Tutaia with helping to build a new confidence. Playing together week-in week-out in the ANZ Premiership this season has given them a new harmony. “I feel so comfortable in the circle with Maria – she’s incredible,” says Mes. “Well, she is the best goal attack in the world.”
Tutaia’s absence in the English test, while she attended a family funeral in Brisbane, meant Mes had to create a new combination with Te Paea Selby-Rickit. They’d only had a couple of training sessions together beforehand, and they began the test like a seasoned duo. But under the frenzied pressure poured on by the Roses in the final quarter, they were eventually worn down. Mes, though, still managed 85% accuracy with her shots.
Now a senior member of the team with 42 test caps, Mes sees huge potential in Selby-Rickit. “Te Paea is so unassuming. She has even more to offer than what we are seeing,” Mes says. “Again, it’s just building the combination, creating that trust. Nailing those little things.
“There are no excuses – we know we can be better and we’ve got to be better. Australia will be another step up in intensity.”
The pair will be put to the test again on Sunday, with Tutaia still out, for the long-awaited rematch with the world champion Australian Diamonds in Invercargill.
Southby has no concerns that the new-look Mes will be able to stand up to the intense focus of Diamonds defenders like April Brandley and Courtney Bruce. “Bailey is very athletic and that allows her to play a different game. I think she will be absolutely fine,” her coach says.
“She’s showing she can handle it, and I have total faith in her that she can do it again.”