Crackerjack Silver Ferns midcourter Gina Crampton has some calls to make on her future, but first she must guide the Steel through a challenging return to netball’s national league.
There’s a “big cloud” shadowing Gina Crampton wherever she goes at the moment. But it’s not necessarily an ominous one.
The Southern Steel co-captain and Silver Ferns’ vice-captain has some hefty issues to mull over – some conjured up during the solitude of lockdown; others appearing since the ANZ Premiership sparked back into life.
How will she and her Steel side cope with the brutal travel schedule back and forth to Auckland for, at this stage, 10 weeks in a row (not to mention the netball in between)?
Will the most successful netball side in the country regain their dominance and their reputation as the “boring, vanilla” team? (Rest assured, Steel fans, this is not a bad thing).
And just how long will world champion Crampton keep playing for the Silver Ferns, and what will she do with her life once her netball days are over?
Let’s leap to her first conundrum: the future.
“It’s constantly on my mind,” says Crampton, who’s 28 and has played 40 tests for the Silver Ferns.
It was while in lockdown back at home in Wellington – with her parents, her teenage brother and and her boyfriend, Fa’asiu Fuatai – that she stopped and thought: Well if there is no netball, then what am I going to do?
“It was a little scary,” she admits. “It’s weird because I don’t even feel like I’ve been around that long.”
She’s ‘been around’ – playing in the public’s eye, at least – for nine seasons, since joining the Steel as a replacement player in 2012. She was crowned the Aspiring Silver Fern of 2015, and debuted in the black dress the following year.
The swift, shrewd and steady wing attack has had two significant career moments in the past two years – she came into her own in the Silver Ferns’ victory at the 2019 World Cup, particularly in the final, and was then promoted to New Zealand vice-captain (an honour shared with Jane Watson) for the successful Nation’s Cup campaign in January.
“I definitely want to keep playing because I love being part of that team. How can you ever say you wouldn’t want to represent your country?” she says.
“But I also need to start thinking about what’s next and finding my way outside of netball.”
Crampton isn’t without skills off the court. The Wellington Girls’ graduate moved to Dunedin a decade ago to study PE at the University of Otago, but then switched across to Otago Polytechnic where she completed her study in personal training, with a postgraduate diploma in physical conditioning.
“I’ve done a lot of work experience in that industry, a lot of coaching and some NETFIT training. I know that’s something I love and can do, and now it’s ‘how do I make that into a career’?” she says.
During Levels 4 and 3, Crampton ran her own training camp in lockdown with two rugby players – her brother, Flynn, is a promising loose forward who’s been in the Hurricanes’ U18 squad; and Fuatai, a former New Zealand Sevens player, is the Bay of Plenty Steamers fullback.
“Well, my brother and my boyfriend didn’t kill me, so that’s a good sign,” she laughs.
She wants to work with younger girls, teaching them netball fitness and skills. She’s talked it over with Watson and Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio “about potentially starting up some netball sessions, like NETFIT has done in Australia,” Crampton says. “I think there’s definitely a gap for it. And it would be cool to continue in the netball world as a job.”
But for the next three months, she has more pressing matters with the Steel.
The southerners, who finished 2019 in third spot, began this disrupted season with a new-look shooting circle – losing Lenize Potgieter to the Adelaide Thunderbirds and Te Paea Selby-Rickit to the Tactix. In came Trinidad and Tobago shooter Kalifa McCollin, and up stepped Jennifer O’Connell and Georgia Heffernan.
Their next loss came in their first match – dipping out to the Magic, 54-48, in the ‘ghost game’, played in Dunedin without a crowd, in one of the first measures to combat coronavirus.
“There are a few things that came out of the first game that we were really disappointed with,” Crampton says. “We hope we can deal with it now, rather than it coming up again during the next 10 weeks.”
The Steel established they had lost one of their core strengths – possession.
“Typically, the Steel is a team who’ve been called the boring team, the vanilla team,” Crampton says (Maria Folau kick-started that back in 2016). “It’s because we just hold on to the ball and don’t let it go – which is a massive strength for us.
“Ball possession has been huge for us recently in the Silver Ferns, so [the Steel] have been known as that team in the Premiership, and that’s something we really want to hold on to. With a little more inexperience in the team, that’s something we will have to reignite – and keep as our brand.”
Losing Selby-Rickit, who’s also been a Steel mainstay for nine years, has felt weird, Crampton admits.
“But to be honest, I’ve actually seen her a whole lot… on the weekends and things. The friendship is still there, even when we’re on separate teams,” she says.
“Our first game back is against her, so there’s definitely been a bit of team banter around that. I’ve been trying to rark up our defenders to really get in her face when we come up against her. She’s such a threat, which is annoying.”
Another menace to their season is travel. Crampton says she wouldn’t mind wearing a GPS tracker to tally up how many kilometres she and her team will trek over the next 12 weeks.
Split between two cities, the Steel are already a well-travelled team. Since Level 2, they’ve been sharing the load – the Dunedin crew drives to Invercargill at the beginning of the week for a couple of trainings a day. Then the Invercargill gang head to Dunedin on a Friday and train together on Saturday.
“We’ve done a whole lot more netball than we usually would,” Crampton says. “It’s a bit of a burden, but unfortunately it is what it is.”
When the ANZ Premiership restarts on June 19, with all the games at the Auckland Netball Centre for at least the first four weeks, the burden grows.
“We’re not complaining because we really want to be playing again, but it’s obviously going to be really, really tough,” says Crampton.
The day before a game, the Steel will fly out of Dunedin together on a chartered plane for the two-and-a-half-hour flight north. On double-header weekends, they’ll be in Auckland for 4-5 days, before flying home – to repeat it all the next weekend.
Netball NZ is now weighing up whether some teams can have home games later in the competition, and if the finals may be played elsewhere.
“We’ve come to the conclusion we just have to be really adaptable,” Crampton says. “There may be some weeks we’re feeling a bit crap, and we need a pool session rather than a weights session. We just need to check in with the bodies, because it’s going to be a massive 10 weeks.”
As co-captain of the Steel, with Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit, Crampton is big on talking things over.
“I’ve always liked to communicate on court and feel engaged with the people around me. But in the Steel environment I feel I talk a bit too much,” she giggles.
“We also have a few people who don’t say anything. So we had really open and honest check-in meeting last night, and I said ‘I know I talk a lot, but sometimes I need to be talked to as well’. I think they thought I didn’t need feedback, but everyone needs it.”
She’s enjoying the new leadership level of her career, especially sharing the responsibility at the Steel.
“Te Huinga Reo is so chill, but so knowledgeable, so we bounce off each other nicely. I’m the one who gets in and directs a bit more, and she’s sort of the happy-go-lucky one,” Crampton says.
Handed the vice-captaincy of the Ferns earlier this year was a special privilege. “Meels [Ekenasio] totally deserved to be the captain, so it was nice to be her 2IC,” says Crampton.
After a false start, Crampton is ready to resume the netball season again.
“Because we had a wee taster with that one game, I’ve felt ready to go again the whole time,” she says. “We’ve had a pretty hard look at ourselves as a team over the last couple of weeks, so I’m hoping that really pushes us to a new place and helps us play some good netball.
“The teams are so even this year, it’s really hard to pick the frontrunners. That’s a great place for netball in New Zealand. But we really want to be back up in that top two.”