As the Silver Ferns this week become the first international netball team to play a series in nine months, it’s a confident step forward on wobbly ground.
The four-day series against the NZ Men, NZ U21s and NZ A side, is a much-needed warm-up for the Ferns, who meet England’s Roses in three tests next week.
For the NZ U21s, it’s a chance to push for a spot to defend the World Youth Cup next year. And for the NZ Men, it’s a golden opportunity to beat the world champions and further showcase their game.
LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden talks to Junior Levi, Karin Burger and Tiana Metuarau about what it means to play for NZ again.
It’s impossible to forget Junior Levi – the seven-foot shooter who stood out in the historic clashes between the Silver Ferns and the NZ Men’s side leading into last year’s World Cup. And yet, he feels he still has something to prove.
For Levi, playing in this series starting on Wednesday means freedom – from Melbourne’s stringent lockdown and a fortnight of quarantine in Christchurch. And it’s a chance to prove he’s more than a one-shot wonder, and to take a leap forward for gender neutrality in sport.
“The opportunity to play in this series is massive,” 30-year-old Levi says. “There’s a lot of talk that the men being included is something we deserve, and I want to move away from that, because it diminishes what it means for the progression of gender-neutral sport.
“I think people forget Netball New Zealand are paving the way for sport internationally by giving us a foot in the door. It definitely means a lot to be a part of this.”
“Being an intimate part of their journey, actually giving them the practice and match play that really helped, made us feel part of the victory,” he says.
“I think we underestimate just how much the World Cup win has changed the complexion of netball here in New Zealand. All of a sudden, we have midcourters coming out of the woodwork, when five years ago we were saying ‘Who’s going to replace Laura Langman when she retires?’
“When we see the girls coming through, I know we can win the World Cup for years to come.”
Men’s netball has thrived from that success too, Levi says, with a swarm of newcomers playing their way into this week’s side.
“What could also come out of this for us is the ability to pump money into the men’s game,” he says. “That’s what’s inhibiting us from taking things to the next level systematically – having grassroots systems around the country to help boys become men in netball. A cultural shift will happen, where people will take men’s netball seriously.”
Personally, Levi’s goal is to prove height isn’t the only reason he’s in the side.
“Last year I showed I could actually play netball, not just stand under the post,” the former Australian shooter says. “This year I want to show a lot more variety – mid-to-long range shots, with good footwork where I can lose a defender on the ground, not only in the air. I’m really excited to add another dimension and keep everyone on their toes.”
Covid-19 has made it a challenging road to Palmerston North. “Up until we booked flights, there was pessimism that [the four] of us in Australia would be able to come over. Especially those of us in Melbourne; it’s been a pretty shoddy year for us. To get out of our city was incredible,” Levi says.
“I’ve been working from home and I’ve come to realise it’s quite depressing. The last time I actually played a game was February, when I flew up to Brisbane to play the Firebirds for a pre-season game.
“We were lucky the three of us from Melbourne got together every day to train. Now all of us are really itching to play again.”
“There are so many feelings of gratitude right now,” says Silver Fern defender Karin Burger, almost in disbelief the next fortnight of netball is going ahead. “It’s been a really hard year.”
Burger played an integral role the last time the Silver Ferns played – back in January when a younger Ferns side won the Nations Cup in England.
For the next nine rocky months, the Pulse star continued to train as though she’s been about to pull on the black dress again. Even when it looked like there wouldn’t be a chance in 2020.
“We’ve worked this entire year, constantly training, because you have to be ready to go at any moment. It’s been mentally and physically demanding, but when you look at the other side of it, and what we’ve been able to do this year compared to other nations, it’s definitely been worth it,” Burger says.
Of course, she never expected Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua to ease off the training regime – reiterated at last week’s mass training camp in Wellington, which also included the Silver Ferns development side and the NZ U21s.
“With the Under 21s being in the same environment, we wanted to set the standard that’s expected at this level,” Burger says.
“That’s been the message from Noels from the very start: the World Cup win is our new baseline. We can’t go down from that; it’s where we start from and we have to build on top of that.
“It’s been really physically demanding which is what we expected. But once you get past all that, it’s actually quite a lot of fun.”
Feeling fortunate to have back-to-back series, while most of the netball world is still on pause, Burger says there’s a new purpose behind her play.
“We’re one of the very few sports who’ve been able do it, so you feel even more fortunate knowing all the hard work that’s gone on in the background,” she says.
“So apart from wanting to represent New Zealand and your family, you also want to give back to those people who have put all the effort in; who had to do the business stuff to make it happen.
“And then there are the people who are seeking sport to watch. They want excitement. And if we do it well, we’ll hopefully get more people on board, watching and even playing netball.”
Having made her international debut against the English Roses two years ago, Burger wants to use this time to grow as a netballer off the court.
“Personally, I set quite high expectations of myself and I don’t just want to be a good player on court, I want to do good stuff off-court as well. Being a team person and contributing,” the 19-test player says.
The Ferns are relishing the chance to get physical with the men’s side again. “The guys always bring it. Honestly they don’t step back at all,” Burger says. “It really makes us use our skill sets, but also our smarts, because they play such an unorthodox kind of a game.
“There’s always physicality involved, so if we can stand up against them, we can stand up to all the other netball women in the world.”
The past week has been a comeback of sorts for teenager Tiana Metuarau.
On the radar of netball fans since she was a 16-year-old rookie shooter in the Pulse, the daughter of Silver Ferns legend Wai Taumaunu had a quiet 2020 ANZ Premiership season for the champion side, spending most of it on the bench, and has since been nursing an injury.
“I’ve been out with an Achilles issue – nothing too serious, just a prevention and precautionary thing. At the Pulse we train a ton, and after a really long season, it’s finally catching up with me,” she says.
“I’m good now, I’m just slowly getting back into things. It’s kind of been like a blessing in disguise – the break was enough time to refresh after a very exhausting, but rewarding season.”
Metuarau is in the rare position of possibly defending a World Youth Cup, having played for New Zealand at the 2017 tournament in Botswana. Yet she still sees it as a privilege to be back in a squad brimming with young talent, who trained with the Silver Ferns in Wellington last week.
“I’m really grateful to be coming back into a space I feel comfortable in. And I’m really happy to be playing with some of my best mates,” she says.
As well as bringing her international netball knowledge, Metuarau has been instrumental in embedding Māori culture and Te Reo in the squad.
“We have Pākehā girls, Samoan and Tongan girls, who are getting amongst the culture and embracing it like it’s their own, which has brought down a lot of barriers,” says Metuarau, who is Ngāti Porou and Cook Island Māori.
“It makes the environment feel like there’s no judgment. That’s been something really key to establishing a healthy space for us.
“We have two incredible people helping us out – Tipi Wehipeihana and Kara Peita – who’ve taught us the haka. We took it with two hands and made it our own, and we do pepeha. I think it’s so important we start implementing these things now for the future of netball in New Zealand.”
While the seasoned youngster is used to playing with and against Silver Ferns, she says there are a number of U21s who haven’t had the experience. “It’s a very cool opportunity, and I have no doubt we’ll be able to give them a really good run,” she says.
Metuarau has made the tough decision to leave her hometown of Wellington to start afresh in Dunedin with the Steel next season, in the hope of more regular court-time.
“I tend to keep my goals fairly realistic and short-term, so I’m focusing on [this] week and then my move down south,” she says. “I’m pretty relaxed and happy where I’m at, at the moment. I love this team.”
* Sky Sport will show all eight games of the Cadbury Series live on Sky Sport 3, with two games a night – 6pm and 7.50pm – from Wednesday through to the final on Saturday.