The first time Jennie Wyllie met Noeline Taurua was on the side of the road in Northland.
Wyllie, then holder of the purse strings at Netball NZ, was on holiday with her family at Ruakaka Beach. Taurua, then coach of the champion Magic netball side, was milling around while her husband, Eddie, was trying to fix their car.
For years Wyllie had admired Taurua from afar – during her playing days as a creative Silver Ferns shooter, then as the innovative coach of the Magic and the Steel.
“I said ‘Hey, Noeline, you don’t know me, but do you need some help?’ And I invited her in for a cup of tea,” Wyllie remembers.
It would be several years later that their paths would truly cross again, and together they’d broker the greatest deal in New Zealand netball history.
A deal in which Taurua would become one of New Zealand’s most feted sports coaches. And Wyllie would be regarded as one of the bravest CEOs in national sport.
The deal went against the grain of Netball NZ’s traditional processes, but it helped to win the World Cup.
And it’s just been reinforced. Taurua announced on Tuesday that she will coach the Silver Ferns in their next two international series – the Constellation Cup against Australia in October, and the Northern Quad Series in January. Then she wants to take time out to consider her future.
She’s coming home with her family, too – after finishing her third season with the Sunshine Coast Lightning. Defending champions Lightning are the ladder leaders going into the penultimate round of Australia’s Super Netball league.
Few could be happier to have Taurua back than Wyllie.
Wyllie laughs remembering back to 2016, when the then Silver Ferns captain, Katrina Rore (nickname: Pole), asked Netball NZ’s new CEO if she’d ever played netball.
“I was like ‘Well Katrina, I will have you know I was in the team above you at the same club [Eastern] when you were just a kid… it didn’t last long that I was above you, but I was’,” Wyllie says.
A couple of weekends ago, Wyllie turned up at the Auckland Netball Centre, dressed in a netball uniform, ready to play her first competitive club game in 15 years.
“I’ve been roped into filling in for a team for the rest of the season,” says Wyllie, a mum of two who turns 45 next month. “My old coach from Eastern saw me, looked me up and down and said ‘What are you doing? Let me take a picture to send Pole’.”
Wyllie hasn’t found the return to the court too daunting – she’s kept her hand in playing summer league netball with her workmates, and coaches her daughter’s Year 1 & 2 team.
When Wyllie applied for the job as chief executive back in 2016, replacing Hilary Poole, she’d been head of finance at Netball NZ for just shy of seven years.
Before that she’d worked in the corporate world, with Telecom and Price Waterhouse Coopers. But it was always her dream to work in netball.
“I knew I was never going to be a Silver Fern myself, so the next best thing for me was being able to do something in the sport that I absolutely loved,” she says.
Before Wyllie’s CEO interview, her mum, Jill Fraser (nee Bloxham) – who played tennis and table tennis for New Zealand – gave her a faded photograph of Wyllie as a kid, a little wing attack kneeling on the Howick-Pakuranga courts.
“She said ‘Jennie, do not forget your roots’,” Wyllie says. “I held that photo up at my interview and said ‘This is me, and this is what my mum wants me to remember myself as’.”
Wise words indeed.
New Zealanders first took notice of Wyllie in May 2018 when she sat in front of cameras and announced an independent review into the Silver Ferns’ dismal performance at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
“For a team with the proud history of the Silver Ferns, fourth is not good enough,” she said.
Two months later, she revealed the damning findings of the review: the players’ loss of confidence in coach Janine Southby, a player-led culture that failed, and Netball NZ had “struggled to embrace a true high performance culture”.
Southby had resigned as coach a few hours before.
It was one of the most testing times in Wyllie’s working career. She was responsible for leading the review, working with Netball NZ’s new board chair, Allison Ferguson, who in her day job is a partner in Auckland law firm Wilson Harle.
“We worked together incredibly closely through a really condensed period of time. And, if anything, it made us appreciate one another for our strengths,” Wyllie says. “It was tough, but it galvanised us.”
Ferguson was impressed with the work Wyllie poured into the review during “a very tricky time”.
She admits that when Wyllie put up her hand for the CEO role, she was a little surprised. “But Hilary Poole was a very strong supporter of Jen’s and she encouraged the board to look at her for the role.”
There have been no regrets, Ferguson says.
At the 2019 Netball World Cup in Liverpool, Wyllie and Ferguson were room-mates who supported each other through the anxious times – like the semi-final against the home favourites, England.
“I don’t know any other board chair and CEO relationship where you can hold hands for 60 minutes, gripping on to each other and punching each other,” Wyllie says. “We walked out of the stadium after that game and said ‘We can do this’.
“It’s not a traditional relationship you’d find in a corporate setting. But Allison will still challenge and listen. And we just get each other.”
When it came to the crunch, Wyllie had to break the rules.
“We were trying new stuff. We went into uncharted waters for netball,” she says. “We had to be brave, courageous and innovative. And I had to be really vulnerable, and I was freaking out because I didn’t know if it was going to work.”
The “uncharted waters” meant employing a New Zealand coach who didn’t live in New Zealand, and who already had a job – with an Australian team, no less.
It was clear that Southby’s replacement had to be Noeline Taurua – but it wasn’t as simple as picking up the phone and asking her if she wanted the job, since she was already coaching the Sunshine Coast Lightning.
“I had to get my board to a place where we could throw traditional processes out the window. I had to get them comfortable that we were going to move quickly, in a different way to the norm, and just trust,” Wyllie says. “And the board were open to it.
“We couldn’t go into the post-World Cup review and get the same feedback we’d had historically. It had to be different.”
So Wyllie entered negotiations for a three-way partnership, with Taurua and the Lightning’s CEO Danielle Smith.
“We didn’t come from a position of massive strength in the relationship,” says Wyllie. “We had to put our own personal interests aside to find a way to make it work for each of our environments without compromising the other. Noels played a major role in that.”
Wyllie had colleagues tell her she was crazy; a coach dividing her time between two major jobs wouldn’t work. It hadn’t in rugby, when Jamie Joseph attempted to coach both Japan and their Super Rugby Sunwolves side. “But I said it might just work for us,” Wyllie told them.
She had already been laying the groundwork for Taurua – passed over for the Ferns job in 2015 – to return to the New Zealand netball fold.
“When I came into this role, I wanted people to feel connected. Noeline was always going to be important to New Zealand,” Wyllie says.
Taurua was invited into a high-performance coaches’ forum in early 2017, run by Kirsten Hellier – the former coach of shotput legend Dame Valerie Adams – to connect experienced heads with the next generation of netball coaches.
“That’s another of Jennie’s key strengths,” Allison Ferguson says. “She’s a real people person.
“For a long time, a lot of important people in the netball community had been lost to Netball NZ, and Jennie saw the need to rebuild those relationships and develop them.
“She’s got that strategic vision as well, and she goes about it in a very natural way.”
Sponsors see Wyllie in that light, too. Cara Liebrock, the country manager of Mondelez NZ – owner of Cadburys – recently worked with Wyllie to sign off a two-year partnership acknowledging netball’s 300,000 volunteers, and sponsoring the home international series.
“She has great energy, she’s collaborative and she’s so proud of Netball NZ,” Liebrock says. “I’ve found her open, engaging and truly authentic. After our first meeting, we went outside and played netball.”
That was a new experience for Liebrock, who’s just moved here from Canada.
Of course, Wyllie won’t take the credit for the Silver Ferns’ incredible turnaround in 11 months – from the lowest ebb, dropping to fourth in world rankings for the first time, to the highest, finally tearing the World Cup from Australia’s grasp after 16 years.
“It comes back to everything feeling right. Noels was the right person in the right space at the right time. And there was good wairua [spirit],” she says. “A lot of things aligned, amazing things. And I don’t even believe in fate.
“I feel really privileged to have been a little part of what’s taken place. I’m all about leaving a legacy that allows the next generation to come in and do great things. That’s how I feel rewarded.”
As soon as Wyllie stepped off the plane from Liverpool, with the World Cup trophy in her possession, she was on the road – travelling around the country talking with everyday netball people at netball centres about what they want from the sport in the next four years.
There was no time to rest on laurels.
“It’s our job now to ensure there’s an enduring legacy built off the back of this,” she says.
Netball NZ are looking at their domestic competitions, like the ANZ Premiership. The national league was criticised as not strong enough to prepare the Silver Ferns for international combat, but Netball NZ now feel some validation for withdrawing from a transTasman competition.
“We didn’t have any distraction from a joint competition,” Wyllie says. “The path we took was a slow burn. We have 120 athletes in the ANZ Premiership and Beko League, and we were very confident that, in the longer term, it would do better things for our athletes.”
While Wyllie wants to maintain momentum in the high performance side of the sport – including bringing through more elite coaches – she sees it equally important to grow the number of women and girls playing the game.
“We want to make sure we can keep netball New Zealand’s No.1 sport for women and girls. Every sport is finding it difficult with participation, but we’ve just bounced past rugby for participation numbers in Auckland.”
Netball NZ now holds the three most sought-after trophies in netball – the World Youth Cup (won in 2017), last year’s Fast5 World Series and the World Cup.
“In the last three years, so much has been achieved, even though we had the disappointment of the Commonwealth Games,” Wyllie says. “We’ve never had a cycle where we’ve held every International Netball Federation trophy there is to hold.”
After copping relentless flak over the past year, Wyllie is now gratefully bombarded with people’s stories about what the Silver Ferns’ victory has meant to them.
“There’s the dad who was having a tough time with his daughters. But they got up and watched the World Cup final together, and that gave him the connection back to his daughters that he’d lost,” she says.
“It has the power to do really good things.”