Kiri Wills has no doubt she made the right decision. Now she has to wait and see if her bold experiment works.
Wills looks out at the exhausted and wilting women sprawled across the indoor netball court in Papakura after another demanding training session. Perspiring with them, in her lilac Stars singlet, is a 43-year-old grandmother of two they call Bubs.
She might be nursing an ice bag on her thigh, to relieve a ‘charley horse’, and wrestling with scissors to cut away the heavy binding around her foot.
But all the while, she’s smiling, and talking; praising the players, telling them they’ve done okay. She doesn’t look out of place as one of them.
In fact, Temepara Bailey has been “kicking the butts” of her much younger Northern Stars team-mates (their words) over these last few weeks. Lobbing in those famous no-look passes straight in to her shooters, fluidly changing direction mid-flight.
For the past two seasons, the Silver Ferns legend has been the assistant coach of the fledgling Stars, riding the highs and the lows from the bench.
But this season, Stars coach Wills decided to mix it up a little. She wanted someone to coach out in the middle, who could guide the players as they played; who could show them in the moment what she was trying to get them to do.
So she asked Bailey if she would consider it – a comeback to top-flight netball in the ANZ Premiership, after seven years in retirement. As a player-assistant coach.
Bailey, who was living in Thailand at the time, had to be convinced. “I was a bit skeptical to begin with,” she says. “I really had to think was this something I wanted to do?
“But as Kiz [Wills] said: ‘It’s great having you sitting with me on the side-line, but it’s even better with you out on the court amongst the girls’.”
“It’s controversial,” says Wills. “People talk about pathways and developing players, but we are probably developing our future Ferns better than anyone else, because on the court we have leadership and people who know how to win.
“I definitely made the right decision.”
In agreeing to wear the purple dress of the Stars, returning to New Zealand and her south Auckland roots, Bailey hopes she’s made the right choice too.
Keeping the youngsters on their toes
“For the last two years, Bubby’s been gunning to get back out on court in trainings,” shooting Star Maia Wilson laughs.
She’s welcomed Bailey with open arms – the Silver Ferns goal shoot knows her own game will only profit being fed by the maestro.
“Heck yeah. I’m very fortunate to get to play with her. Her flair and her smarts; seeing the space,” 21-year-old Wilson says.
“Being on the receiving end of her passes is amazing – no-looks, one-hand. I need to be on my toes and keep my head up, because that ball can come in at any time. I think that’s going to be one of the strengths of the Stars this season – if our shooters can really pull that ball in, it will be amazing.”
It’s the kind of tonic they need. In the first two seasons since the Stars were born, they’ve struggled to get off the bottom rungs of the league ladder.
They inched closer to their rivals last year, but frustratingly lost five games by five goals or less.
This season, they feel they’re taking their strongest team yet into the ANZ Premiership.
Seven of their 10 players have international netball credentials. All have played at this level before.
Silver Ferns Kayla Cullen and Storm Purvis are back on court and firing after last year’s disruptive injuries. And Leana de Bruin – the Stars’ very first captain – has returned after a challenging season across the ditch with the Adelaide Thunderbirds.
At Monday night’s training at Pulman Arena, last year’s Stars captain, Grace Kara, is ball girl. She’s due to have her first child in April.
The loss of Kara’s experience in the middle sparked Wills’ brainwave to bring back Bubs (regardless of her age, Bailey is still “Bubby”, or “Bubs”, to everyone who knows her).
With younger players like Fa’amu Ioane, Tori Kolose and Chrissy Oscar still coming back from injury, Wills looked to Bailey to fill the gap.
“Kiz is very clever,” Bailey says. “She told me: ‘You can actually bring the young players through faster to become Silver Ferns if you’re on the court’. That’s the plan, and hopefully it comes out the other side.
“When you’re sitting on the side-line, you can only say so much. You can’t rewind and replay a moment again because it’s gone.
“But when you’re out there playing with them, you can push them around; you can have that conversation with them within the moment. The opportunity to talk to them in real time is gold.”
It’s the talented young midcourters who are most likely to benefit – Holly Fowler, an original Star and part of the Ferns side who won last year’s Fast 5 World Series; and Mila Reuelu-Buchanan, a dynamic and composed feeder who was on the Central Pulse bench last season.
Wills says she’s seeing the payback already. The Stars played their Auckland cousins, the Northern Mystics, in a pre-season clash in Whangarei last weekend – winning by 11 goals.
“The level of experience that Leana and Bubby bring has lifted them. They’re confident in their team-mates, and they’re performing,” she says.
A special connection
In Whangarei, it was Bailey who received the loudest ovation as the teams ran out on court.
“Everyone loves her,” says 41-year-old captain de Bruin – especially her team-mates. “The girls have a huge respect for her. She has so much experience, we’re always picking her brains. If she makes a mistake out on court, she’ll quickly put her hand up.
“She’s the little pocket rocket, who’s always in a good mood.”
Bailey and de Bruin have known each other for 18 years, ever since de Bruin left South Africa; they played together in the Silver Ferns for eight of those.
“She’s someone I learned to play with when I came to New Zealand, so it’s a really special connection,” says de Bruin.
De Bruin and Bailey gravitate together during the micro-breaks in training, talking through scenarios. “She’s helping me a lot too,” de Bruin says. “I don’t feel like the odd one out anymore!”
“We’re pretty honest with each other, and with the team. And there’s no hierarchy, even though we’re the oldest. Everyone has a voice, so people feel like they belong.”
De Bruin’s season in Australia’s Super Netball league was to have been her final hurrah, but the Thunderbirds’ win-less season left her empty.
“It was a tough season, I’m not going to lie. I like winning,” she says. “I want to finish my career at home, because New Zealand’s done so much for me.”
Wills has given the two veterans the license to deal with issues on and off court. “In Whangarei, we were rapt with how we got ourselves out of a hole when we got stuck a few times. We sorted it out on court,” de Bruin says.
No young duckling
Bailey, who began her netball career playing in a Mangere car park, is no stranger to comebacks.
First selected for the Silver Ferns in 1996, she made her debut in 2000 after the birth of her second child. She stepped down from international netball in 2007, only to return in 2009 and help the Ferns win Commonwealth Games gold the following year. In retirement, she made a brief cameo appearance for the Mystics in 2014.
The midcourter admits this time she’s had to approach things a lot differently.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done a pre-pre-season training in my life, so that was hard,” she says.
Not that she was out of shape. Bailey played club netball in Auckland last year, and was doing Muay Thai kickboxing sparring while living in Thailand.
Getting her body used to moving on court again has been a challenge, she says, and her recovery regime is a lot more intense.
“Nowadays, I have to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. In my younger days I was like, ‘Meh’. But now it’s ice, massage, physio, even recovery boots. I’m not a young duckling anymore.”
Connections on court are coming together, too. “There have been a few cheeky comments from the girls,” she laughs. “There’s still a lot of work to do out there, but if we don’t have anything to work on, we’re not going to learn anything.”
Bailey is still “putting my 10 cents’ worth in” an assistant coach, alongside new apprentice coach Michelle Parsons.
Any spare time she has away from netball is devoted to her family – especially her two grandchildren, aged four and nine months. “They are so yummy. I think I’m a better grandparent than a parent,” Bailey laughs.
This weekend, the Stars are in Otaki, at the annual pre-season tournament, where all six premiership teams get a good look at each other.
“I don’t think there’s a team that stands out this season,” Bailey says. “There may be a few more Silver Ferns in one team, but as history shows, that hasn’t counted for anything really.
“We’re trained hard – we’re a lot fitter than we were last year. It’s going to be a really exciting season.”
The Stars will open their campaign with the ultimate test – facing defending champions, Southern Steel, in Hamilton on February 24.