When Noeline Taurua was first asked if she would accept a damehood, the words of her late father rang shrilly in her ears.
“Right at the beginning it was no, definitely not,” the successful Silver Ferns coach says.
“My father was at the forefront of my thinking around whether I would accept it or not. And at first, I said: ‘No, Dad wouldn’t like that’.”
Her father, Kingi Taurua, was a highly respected Ngāpuhi leader, broadcaster and Māori advisor to the government, who passed away in May last year. Although he once guarded Queen Elizabeth outside Buckingham Palace, he was not a fan of the royal honours system.
“My father was very much against these things,” says Noeline, one of his 10 children. “When the list came out every year – well, I’m not going to repeat what he said. But it’s always been a sensitive matter in our family.
“It also didn’t sit well with me. I found it very uncomfortable, knowing there were other people out there who’ve contributed to netball their whole lives, but haven’t been recognised.
“I find it difficult to be acknowledged in that way, to be individualised, knowing there are so many people who have influenced netball.”
But then Taurua thought more deeply about it (right up until the night of the acceptance deadline, in fact). She thought about what becoming a dame, at the age of 51, might mean to netball, to the community, and to her own future.
She researched – taking time to read up on what other New Zealand knights and dames had done with their lives after being bestowed with the honour. People like Sir Edmund Hillary.
“Even after he received his [knighthood] he said: ‘What’s next?’ Then he did a lot of work in Nepal. He was influencing in a different way,” Taurua says.
That was critical in swaying her reasoning.
“It made me think, hey, this may be just the beginning of something,” she says.
“A lot of people have retired, they’ve finished their careers, when they get this. Whereas this could be just the beginning for me, in my own self, to step up.
“I don’t know exactly what to yet. But it’s an opportunity to really help netball. To take everything I do up another notch. And not shy away from expressing what I want to say.
“And the influence I can have, not only on netball or sport, but on society in general. That prompted me to keep going.”
After the mother of five and grandmother of three talked it through with her family, she decided to become Dame Noeline. Though it’s more likely her Silver Ferns will from now on refer to her as “Dame Noels”.
“I’m really grateful. Not everyone gets the opportunity to be bestowed with this honour,” she says, back at home at Pukehina Beach in the Bay of Plenty, after three years living in Queensland.
“I would have never, ever have thought I would be in this realm. It’s really surreal.”
Taurua knows her father would approve. “He wouldn’t be keen on it for him, but I know he would be proud of me, definitely,” she says.
“He would be saying: ‘What’s next? What will you do with that?’ And that’s the challenge that lies ahead of me. That’s what really excites me.”
And she already has plenty of ideas for New Zealand netball.
“It helped me with the jigsaw puzzle. It wouldn’t have made sense to me if I accepted [the damehood], and then I went” – Dame Noeline Taurua
Taurua is the third netballer to be made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Dame Lois Muir, a former Silver Fern and their longest-serving coach, was honoured in 2004. Dame June Mariu, captain of the 1960 Silver Ferns and a stalwart of Māori netball, was recognised for her services to Māori and the community in 2006.
At 51, Taurua is by no means the youngest New Zealand sportswoman to be made a dame. That honour goes to solo round-the-world sailor Dame Naomi James, who received her title at the age of 29. Dame Valerie Adams was 32; Dame Susan Devoy, 34.
Taurua’s recognition comes in the same year she took the Silver Ferns from a team who’d lost their form, faith and footing in netball’s world order, to World Cup victors – all in the space of just 11 months in the job.
But that’s not all that she’s acknowledged for. There’s her 11-year stint as the coach of the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, during which they became the only New Zealand team to win the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship.
Then there’s her three years with the Sunshine Coast Lightning, taking them to Australia’s Super Netball league grand finals every year, and winning the title twice.
And of course, her own playing career – 34 tests for the Silver Ferns as a zippy, crafty little goal attack, winning Commonwealth silver and World Cup bronze.
Taurua wasn’t the only netballer recognised in the 2020 New Year Honours after the unforgettable World Cup win in July. The Silver Ferns captain – and New Zealand’s most capped Silver Fern – Laura Langman, became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM).
A three-time – and only – winner of the Dame Lois Muir Supreme Award, Langman says she’s “so shocked and humbled” by the honour.
“I always find it hard to be singled out from the team, as it’s been a massive year for our group,” the 163-test player says. “I’m just so grateful for the journey – the memories are the best.”
Another former Silver Ferns shooter, Margaret Forsyth, is now also an ONZM, for services to netball and the community. A two-time world champion, in 1979 and 1987, Forsyth also coached the Magic, and is a Hamilton City Councillor who led the city’s bike plan.
Taurua admits her damehood also helped her opt to continue as the Silver Ferns’ head coach till 2021, a decision she announced just before Christmas.
“That was all part of it, if I’m going to be honest. It made me think what else I could do beyond head coach,” she says.
“Things like making a contribution to the grassroots and to the community. I’ve always been that way – I’m a strong supporter of communities, and the pathways that need to happen to get to the top.
“It helped me with the jigsaw puzzle. It wouldn’t have made sense to me if I accepted [the damehood], and then I went. It had to be part of it all moving forward.”
Taurua isn’t completely sure how she will use her new title for good, but hopes that it will “open doors”.
“Sometimes these things mean you’re heard in a different way. More opportunities arise,” she says. “It has the ability for good in the space that I know, which is netball, but it can also be bigger than that.
“That’s what really resonates with me. All the time, I’ve said it’s not just about netball – it’s always about positive women, positive behaviour, the influence sport has on society.
“It doesn’t change anything about me. But with the prestige and mana around it, it makes me want to step up.”
Her first responsibility in 2020 will be taking the Silver Ferns to England in January to play in a new international contest – the Vitality Netball Nations Cup, against Jamaica, England and South Africa.
But her focus for the year will be on the Constellation Cup – the annual four-test tussle with world number one Australia (the Silver Ferns are now back up to second in the world, having sunk as low as fourth).
“For me, the Constellation Cup is more challenging than a World Cup, because you need the ability to consistently back up, from one game to the fourth. That’s something that’s eluded us; it’s a massive challenge in itself,” she says.
She wants the Ferns to follow the same strategy and planning they used for this year’s World Cup, to put them in better stead to tackle the Australians at the end of the season.
Another plan she has, to run alongside the Ferns programme over the next two years, is to give a “big push” to the levels underneath the elite tier.
“I want to go right back to the under 18s. If we can somehow link all the systems underneath so we are all aligned and speaking the same language, that will help the Silver Ferns,” Taurua says.
She plans to work with more coaches throughout the country, even at local netball level. It’s something she couldn’t do in her last tenure, while living and coaching in Australia.
“There will be more getting out and about, into the regions, which I’m really looking forward to. Working with coaches is an area I love,” she says.
“Netball is the number one sport for females in New Zealand, but we can’t take that for granted and not move with the times. There are so many other sports nipping at our heels, we have to be able to work with different people.
“Which I suppose goes hand-in-hand with this,” she says of her damehood. “It’s quite weird, how it’s happened, but it’s kind of connecting the dots for me.”
She will see in the New Year with her family, sitting around a driftwood bonfire on her beach. “2020 and 2021 are going to be very cool.”
Other New Zealand women recognised in the New Year Honours for their contribution to sport:
Honey Hireme – triple international and Kiwi Ferns captain – becomes a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to rugby league.
Lauren Boyle – three-time Olympic swimmer, Commonwealth gold medallist and world record holder – MNZM, for services to swimming.
Lydia Bradey – trailblazing mountaineer and the first woman to climb Mt Everest without oxygen – ONZM, for services to mountaineering.
Jane Clark – Christchurch gymnastics stalwart – ONZM, for services to gymnastics.