Jane Watson never saw herself as a captain. Or a Silver Fern, for that matter.

In fact, growing up in the tiny town of Millers Flat, she hated netball, and never imagined she would ever become an athlete for a living. 

How her life – and her view of netball – has changed. One of the most dynamic and athletic netballers in the game right now, Watson is also doing an inspiring job as captain of the Tactix this season.

She’s just played her 100th national league game, and the way the explosive defender has led her beleaguered team by example in the ANZ Premiership, she’s a certainty to hold her place in the Silver Ferns side for the World Cup in July.

It will be the 29-year-old’s first world championship – but that’s one more than she ever dreamed of as a girl.  

Growing up on her parents farm in Cave, a tiny township just out of Pleasant Point near Timaru, Watson was a passionate footballer until she was “11-and-a-half”, to be exact.

Then the Watsons moved south to a new farm, at Millers Flat on the Clutha River.

“The little school of Millers Flat didn’t have a football team,” Jane explains. “So Mum was like: ‘Why don’t you go and play netball? It’s a good way to get to know the girls’.

“I hated netball. I thought it was awful. But I did it anyway.

“I can’t say I enjoyed it for a wee while, but then I grew to love it.”

In fact, it wasn’t until she was in Year 11, a boarder at St Kevin’s College in Oamaru, that she finally found her place in the game.

“I was just a wee farm girl who loved getting outside,” Watson says. “I never thought I’d be a sportsperson. So it’s quite odd.”

And yet here she is, putting her career as a primary school teacher on hold, to play elite netball. Since making her international debut against the English Roses in 2016, Watson has played 29 tests for the Silver Ferns as one of their key defenders.

This year, Watson was handed the captaincy of the Tactix, a team thinned by a cruel streak of injuries in the last two seasons – including taking out three Silver Ferns with knee injuries.

Captain was a role she hadn’t expected, but Watson hasn’t let it affect her game. She’s sitting in the top two for intercepts (31) and deflections (79), and is one of the cleanest defenders in this year’s national league.

“It’s funny because I never, ever, thought I’d be a captain. It was never something I wanted to do,” she says.

“I was just thrown in there, but I don’t mind it. I feel like I don’t really do much more than the toss and an interview after the game.”

But Tactix assistant coach Julie Seymour begs to differ. Watson, she says, has been an outstanding captain whose “energy and passion are infectious both on and off the court”. 

“She sets herself very high standards in the way she trains and plays, which is an excellent example for all our players. When she needs to, she’s confident in demanding more of the team,” Seymour, a former Silver Ferns captain, says. 

“I also love that while Jane is very competitive and passionate, she also has a great sense of humour.” 

During a game, you can constantly hear Watson’s voice from the back of the court, appealing to her players to give all they’ve got. But that’s nothing knew: “I’ve always done a lot of talking,” she says. 

She doesn’t know if this new leadership has changed her game. “But I feel like maybe there is, not exactly a pressure, but a responsibility, to perform and also help others perform,” she says.

She’s trying to encourage others to become leaders on court. “There are quite a few younger ones in the team, who are still developing,” she says. “But there are a few who have been around a wee while, but they haven’t had to step up. I think it’s a really good opportunity now for everyone to find their voices and find out who they are as well.”

Jane Watson has got her hands to 31 intercepts and 79 deflections this season. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Watson really found her voice during her three seasons with the Southern Steel. She’d been with the Tactix for three years, but in 2014, “things weren’t going so great”, she recalls.

Off the court, she was happy, relief teaching at lower decile schools around Christchurch.

“The feeling you get from some of the kids, their appreciation that you were there and interested in them was a feeling I wasn’t getting from my netball at the time,” Watson wrote on the #WeAreCanterbury website. 

So she had to think seriously about whether it was time to give up netball and teach full-time.  

Then she got a call from the Steel, and decided to give netball another chance. Today, she’s happy she made that move to Invercargill, and played 42 games for the Steel. 

It was there that Watson really blossomed as a player, under the leadership of legendary Steel captain Wendy Frew.

“Playing with Wendy for three years was probably the best mentoring I could have had,” Watson says. “As a person and a captain, she’s amazing, you know? She’s someone I really look up to and really get along with as well. Being in that environment with her was the best preparation for captaincy that I could get.”

There’s no denying the Tactix have struggled this season – posting four wins from 12 games, to sit fifth of six teams. And, understandably, there have been times of exasperation.

“It can get frustrating at times. There was a point three or four games ago, where I was like ‘Oh shit, you know, what do we do now?’” she says.

But then the Tactix took a lighter view of their plight. They went paintballing together, and then all went to the uplifting ‘You Are Us Aroha Nui’ fundraising concert in Christchurch.

“We lightened up a bit, got together as a team and had some fun. Since then, it’s been really good,” Watson says. “We’re still training hard, but trying to enjoy it more. We know we have nothing to lose.”

Last week, they took two quarters off the undefeated Pulse. On Sunday night – Watson’s 100th match in the national league – they toppled the Stars 53-48, and suddenly had a mathematical chance of making the top three, and a place in the finals play-offs.

“We reckon it’s just a shame we don’t have 10 more games,” Watson laughs. “It just takes a little longer to get it right sometimes, and I guess those injuries prolonged us getting to where we need to be. Next year is a new year, so we’ll just finish this year really strongly.”

After losing last year’s captain Jess Maclennan and vice-captain Zoe Walker to knee injuries in 2018, the Tactix were to be smacked with two more major blows. Explosive goal keep Temalisi Fakahokotau and midcourter Erikana Pedersen – both Silver Ferns – were also struck down by ACL ruptures.

Fakahokotau could be back on court for the Tactix in the next couple of weeks.

“I’ve definitely missed her,” Watson says of her tenacious defensive partner. “She’s so great to have behind you; her energy and presence is awesome.

“But we’ve just had to make do and be adaptable. That’s sport.”

This season, Watson has shared the defenders circle with Sophia Fenwick and New Zealand U21 defender Kate Lloyd.

Watson has had no trouble reconnecting with Fenwick, a former shooter who switched to defender, and her flatmate during their Steel days in Invercargill.  

“We’re kind of like sisters, really,” Watson says. “We can tell each other whatever we need to say, then go and have coffee and be best friends again. It’s really great to have that relationship.”

Although this year’s league has doubled as a Silver Ferns trial, with coach Noeline Taurua often on the sidelines searching for her World Cup side, Watson says she has no trouble switching off that pressure.

“I’m very much a person who focuses on whatever I’m doing now,” she says.

“There’s communication and feedback given back through Debs [Fuller, assistant Ferns coach] especially for the defence. We catch up monthly to look at our progress. It’s always good to see feedback, stats and what to work on, but right now we’re in the ANZ Premiership. For me, [the Silver Ferns] are in the background.”

She won’t even consider what it might be like to play at her first World Cup.

“I’m not in the team yet. But if the opportunity comes I’ll take it with two hands,” she says.

It looks like her teaching career – at least the one away from the netball court – will have to wait a little longer.

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

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