Noeline Taurua isn’t your run-of-the-mill coach. And she’s ready to bring her outside-the-box mindset to the ailing Silver Ferns, she tells Suzanne McFadden.

Laura Langman struggles to put the “Noels’ way” into words.

“She has this insane ability to have a vision for the whole team, as well as one for every player,” the Silver Fern veteran says of the woman who’s had a significant influence on her netball career, Noeline Taurua.

“No matter if it’s your first year, or your tenth, the challenge is always exciting and scary. I admire her ability to keep what’s happening in the netball realm in perspective with life.

“There’s always something to learn from the good, the bad and the ugly, that grows you as a person, and feeds into your performance as a player. The journey with Noels is never dull.”

Taurua, the newly appointed Silver Ferns coach, would laugh to hear this. “Scary? Ha!” she’d probably throw back her head and hoot.

But she’d also be proud that a player of Langman’s calibre truly gets her; that she understands the outside-the-box coaching style that Taurua brings to her netball teams. And that she recognises she has matured as a person as much as she has a player under Taurua’s watch.

It’s this same holistic philosophy that Taurua, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua descent, intends to bring to a crushed and humiliated Silver Ferns squad – in her endeavour to not only set them back on a winning path, but to be victorious at the 2019 World Cup.

In a glowing career, 2015 stands out as a critical waypoint for Taurua.

It was the year she failed to make the shortlist for the Silver Ferns coaching job, vacated by Wai Taumaunu, her former team-mate in the champion Wellington club side PIC, and ultimately filled by Janine Southby.  

And a year when Taurua began to question: ‘Why am I coaching netball?’ When her father, respected Ngāpuhi leader the late Kingi Taurua, was the first person to call her after she missed out on the job, she told E-Tangata. “Never mind, never mind,” he said to his daughter. “You can still coach.”

But it was also the year that Taurua graduated with a Master’s of science in performance sport, through the University of Stirling in Scotland.

The journey into academia would have a huge effect on her and validate her coaching philosophy, even if it sometimes contradicted the principles of high performance sport.

“I actually found it quite refreshing, to discover that there are others out there like me,“ 50-year-old Taurua says. “I don’t know if I’ve always been a different coach, but people mean a lot to me. It isn’t just about them being players – they’re not robots without voices.

“Once, you always had to be sitting on the bench doing things a certain way… being dictatorial, telling people what to do. But people can find their own style now. There’s no one-stop shop. You have to find what works for you.

“At the end of the day, I’m working with people and I have a more holistic approach. I want to know what do we need to do to bring out the best in our people?”

In the past, Taurua’s approach has been labelled ‘kooky’.

While coaching the Magic for 11 years – including their 2012 ANZ Championship victory – she took her players on team building exercises climbing mountains, paddling down the Whanganui River, camping in the wilds and seeking spiritual guidance from a monk. She turned up at a pre-season training dressed up as a bee.

She would constantly try to challenge her players’ “inner resolve” – building their mental, physical and emotional strength. 

“We don’t necessarily need to win the general public back. But we need to be competitive, we need to be consistent. Stop the bullshit. Be open and honest. We need to win.”

– Noeline Taurua

For her own growth, Taurua spent time learning from all-conquering sevens coach Sir Gordon Tietjens, and visited South Korea to learn from the national women’s handball coach.

But there was method to her quirkiness.

While studying online for towards her Master’s, Taurua delved into “alternative” ways to coach netballers.   

“Netball research is really limited other than injury prevention,” she says. “But I found research into sport that supported my own views. You have to be open to changing the norm, otherwise you stay in your own stagnant box.”

She knows that her way has been successful. “I guess winning two premiership finals in a row, after starting a team from scratch, is proof that there must be something in there of value,” she says, not even a week after the Sunshine Coast Lightning won back-to-back titles in Australia’s Suncorp Super Netball league.

“It gives me more confidence in how I work.”

Working with the Lighting since the franchise began two years ago, Taurua has been able to develop her coaching model further. The team is co-owned by NRL club Melbourne Storm and the University of the Sunshine Coast, and the team are based at the varsity’s high performance centre in Sippee Downs.

Taurua works with the USC’s sports programme. “They’ve been very open to using the model I learned, related to performance,” she says.

“What I’ve been able to do in a year-and-a-half there has been amazing. I have Australians, English and South Africans in our Lightning team and the same model works with everybody.”

She sees her team as family, and whānau has always been the No.1 priority for Taurua.  

In fact, she had only one condition when considering the Silver Ferns job: all of her family – her partner, her five children and three grandchildren – had to approve. 

She knew by taking on the New Zealand coach role, and combining it with her existing job at the Lightning, it ultimately meant she would spend less time with them.

“You can only ask them straight, because they’ll answer you straight,” she says. “But I was completely taken aback by their response – I got the clear approval straight away. They were totally elated, in fact I’ve never seen them so happy in my life. More than Christmas.

“I was rapt, because I know running two programmes will impact on them.”

Taurua and four of her children will stay on the Sunshine Coast (her eldest daughter, Aania, and her children live in Wellington).

The past week has been huge for Taurua. On top of winning the SuperNetball grand final in Perth, and flying into Auckland for the not-so-secret revelation of the New Zealand coaching appointment, she was also caught up in moving house.

Taurua now lives in Birtinya, a small suburb built around Lake Kawana, and home to the Coast’s new university hospital.

“It’s closer to my work and where the children need to go to school. It’s so beautiful, and the lifestyle is amazing,” she says. She never entertained thoughts of returning to live in New Zealand.

“When this [Silver Ferns] job was presented to me, I was always committed to stay with the Lightning,” she says. “I’ve still got work to do there – I always like to leave a job better than when I first found it.

“There are still things we need to do in building pathways. So then it came down to: ‘how could I do both?’”

Although it’s never been done before, Taurua reckons she will be able to handle both demanding roles. She can keep tabs on Kiwi players by watching the ANZ Premiership on her computer, and work with the franchise coaches.

“In the past, if [the Lightning] play on Saturday, we don’t train till Wednesday, so there will be gaps that I’ll be able to come over,” she says.   

When she’s not with Lightning, her assistant coach, Queenslander Kylee Byrne, will be in charge. Both are committed through to the end of 2019 season.

Langman and Ferns’ perennial shooter Maria Folau – who both have exemption to play in Australia next year – are tipped to join the Lightning player roster.

The Silver Ferns’ assistant coach – or coaches – will be announced this week. There’s a strong chance than one will be Debbie Fuller, another team-mate from both PIC and the Ferns, who had Taurua as her assistant coach with the Mystics in 2015.

They both made their debut wearing the Ferns’ coveted black dress in 1994. Fuller was a rangy wing defence, while Taurua was a small, but fleet-footed goal attack. Taurua won a silver medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games before a serious knee injury ended her playing career.

Taurua can now fully focus on coaching the Ferns, who come together next week for the first time since their disastrous Commonwealth Games campaign, and prepare to take on three of the world’s netball super-powers in the Quad Series, starting in Auckland on September 15.

So how will she measure success with the Silver Ferns? Taurua, who admits she’s been thinking this through for a little while, starts from July 2019, the World Cup in Liverpool, and works backwards.

“As a coach, no lie, I’m judged by my results. That will never change. Winning a World Cup is what it’s all about,” she says matter-of-factly.

“If I step back from winning the World Cup, then the next thing would be getting into the top four in Liverpool, and not taking that for granted.

“If I take another step back, it’s the ANZ Premiership and ensuring we have athletes who have a base that’s built on the style of netball we want to play in Liverpool. It’s about working with the franchises, identifying the players who will epitomise what it is to be a Silver Fern.

“Step back again to the Northern Quad Series early next year, and we won’t necessarily be hitting our straps, but I should have a very clear understanding of what needs to happen, what the plan is moving forward. How are we going to be in contention to win the world title?

“Then step back to this Quad Series and the Constellation Cup. It’s about testing, assessing and building the foundations. Being very clear what our plan is, and what’s the best and fastest way to move the boulder. What are the milestones we have to meet?

“We don’t necessarily need to win the general public back. But we need to be competitive, we need to be consistent. Stop the bullshit. Be open and honest. We need to win.”

When she walked into an empty office space in Parnell last Thursday, Taurua received an ovation from media and the Netball New Zealand board members, who’d paused midway through their meeting to witness the announcement of an appointment they’d signed off.

It was the kind of applause a coach might get if she had just won the World Cup.

At home in Birtinya, Taurua had been mostly oblivious to the hype around her selection. She has no idea that a reasonably large chunk of the nation had been demanding her appointment, looking to her to turn the flagging Ferns around. “Nah, really?” she says. “It’s all very foreign to me. It doesn’t really resonate.

“I just see it as my job, and my opportunity to contribute something. I see it as an honour to represent my country again.”

It’s just the kind of tough mission she’s thrives on.

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

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