From Wellington to Glasgow and home again, netball coach Gail Parata is helming the national champion Pulse side, and can call on her old room-mate for help.
Dame Noeline Taurua and Gail Parata have a long relationship, once built on deception.
Now among the best netball coaches in the world, the two women have been friends since they first met playing for the imposing Wellington club side, PIC, through the 1990s.
When they were on the road, they always roomed together. “In fact, she was the only person who would room with me, because I snore,” Parata laughs.
They’ve stayed in touch over the decades, even while Parata was on the other side of the world coaching the Scottish Thistles to new heights in world netball over six years.
And when Parata applied for the head coach role at the Central Pulse back home in Wellington (a job she ultimately got), she phoned the Silver Ferns coach for some tips and encouragement.
At the launch of the ANZ Premiership last week, Taurua had to wait in line to catch up with the in-demand Parata, the only new coach in the league this season.
“It’s funny, her and I,” Parata says. “We can go for a long time not seeing each other, both busy with netball and family, and then we do, we start talking like it was yesterday.
“I’m very mindful that she’s a busy lady with a big family and head coach of the Ferns, but she keeps telling me ‘I’m here if you need me’. So, I will definitely be tapping into that, and bouncing ideas off her knowledge and experience, without putting too much pressure on her.”
It goes both ways, though. Taurua got Parata to help her coach the Silver Ferns to victory in the Nations Cup in England at the start of 2020.
Their on-court partnership was unique. Taurua was the starting goal attack and Parata wing attack, for PIC, Wellington, the Capital Shakers and even, briefly, the Silver Ferns.
While Parata was often considered too short – at 5ft 6in, or 1.67m – for international netball (she played just one test for the Ferns), she was a skilled, reliable, and determined player. Taurua remembers her best for her deceptive pass.
“Gail had that instinctive type of play – when it’s open, the ball’s going to come your way,” she says.
“Her pass on the baseline – whoosh. You had to keep your eyes up otherwise you were going to get the ball in your face. That kind of deception can only be good for the Pulse too.”
The fake pass was one of the tricks a young Parata learned from her Aunty Patsy. Now it’s one of the traits Taurua hopes Parata will pass on – with her reliability and work ethic – to a younger, impressionable Pulse side this season.
Of course, it’s not easy coming into a side who’ve dominated the premiership for the past three seasons, winning the last two.
But Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse have a different look about them. With their coach of four years, Yvette McCausland-Durie, five players have left – including Silver Ferns Karin Burger (to Tactix) and Katrina Rore, who’s having her first child. Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio is on medical leave and is being assessed weekly.
They lost their opening game on Sunday to the Northern Stars, 57-53, but were satisfied to have taken a bonus point from the close-run defeat.
Taurua says it was time for the Pulse to have a new direction. “And with Gail’s experience at international level, I’d like to think her changes in strategy are what’s required for the team now. She brings a point of difference that will keep the opposition guessing,” she says.
“From my perspective, Gail still has to find her feet here. And find her own way.”
Parata is up for the challenge. She’s had a career full of them.
She grew up playing netball in Taranaki and when at 15, she couldn’t make her high school A team, Parata ended up playing with her aunt’s senior club side, where she learned from some experienced players.
Moving to Wellington when she was 20, she joined the PIC club and began learning from the Silver Ferns around her, like Wai Taumaunu and Marghie Matenga. Eight years later, she finally made the New Zealand team.
This isn’t Parata’s first time sitting on the Pulse bench. She was assistant coach to McCausland-Durie for three seasons back in the 2010s: “Those were hard times, we were ninth and 10th, and no one wanted to come to our region to play,” she recalls. She went for the head coach job in 2012 but missed out to Robyn Broughton.
Parata then moved to Scotland – with her partner, John, and daughter, Alexi – to coach the national side, the Thistles.
Claire Nelson, the CEO of Netball Scotland and the Strathclyde Sirens who Parata also coached, says the New Zealander was “absolutely transformational” for the Thistles and Netball Scotland’s standing in world netball.
“Through the experience and expertise, she’d gained in the Silver Ferns system, she stripped our elite performance programme right back to basics and then rebuilt it with enhanced technical ability and game strategy,” Nelson says.
“And most importantly she instilled a belief in us all that we were capable of competing against the best in the world…and we did.
“She left us having taken Scotland from 13th to eight in the official world rankings – with a brief peak at seventh – and with a bright and exciting future ahead.”
Parata loved her time in Glasgow – “we’d like to think we became Glaswegians” – coaching Scotland through two World Cups and two Commonwealth Games. Her highlight: getting Scotland into the 2019 World Cup by winning the European qualifier.
“Scotland had to learn to play against different styles, how to hold the ball under pressure from teams like New Zealand and Australia. We had to develop game plans where we could be competitive, and we worked hard to take a 60-goal deficit against New Zealand one year down to 30 or 40 goals. That was a win for us,” she says.
“We got creative in our game plans. And that’s hopefully something I’m bringing back here. The style of netball played in the ANZ Premiership is all the same, so I’m trying to think out of the box to change things up.”
(Like Taurua, Parata also has a Master’s degree in the science of performance coaching, from the University of Stirling in Scotland).
Parata helped get Scotland into the UK’s Superleague, and was head coach of the Strathclyde Sirens.
“That’s when I brought over players like Ellen Halpenny and Carla Borrego who could help us be competitive in the domestic competition but could also teach the girls,” she says.
“There were challenges – we travelled to the games around the UK, played the same day then drove six hours back on the bus, getting home at 4am, and the girls had to to work on Monday morning. But it really helped develop and improve Scottish netball.”
At the end of 2019, Parata decided it was time to come home so Alexi, now 12, could go to high school in New Zealand and be near her grandparents.
But Parata returned without a job to go to, then found one across the Tasman. She signed up to coach the Northern Rays in Queensland’s Sapphire Series, and spent three weeks with the team in Townsville until Covid-19 struck, and she came back to Wellington.
Then McCausland-Durie announced she was stepping down from the Pulse, and Parata threw her hat in the ring. “There were nerves around ‘I hope I get this job!’,” she laughs. “But I know coaching, and it’s my region, so it’s like coming home.”
But she admits it has been an eye-opener, walking into an already-successful, professionally set-up team.
“In Scotland I could do whatever I wanted to. Here there’s so much in place that’s really strong, I don’t want to go in and change everything up,” Parata says. “So it took a few weeks for me to figure it all out.
“But it’s awesome to be home; back in Wellington where it all started for me. The supporters are still there, stalwarts of Wellington netball like Dale Wortman. And at my old PIC netball club there are lot of people still there volunteering.”
Parata is surrounded by support. She has an impressive coaching team – including former Samoan international Pelesa Semu as her assistant, with specialist coaching from former Cook Islands shooter Anna Andrews-Tasola and Taumaunu, the former Silver Ferns coach. And Taurua is going to be working closely with Parata and the other franchise coaches this season, travelling the country to share her knowledge and better connect the teams with the Silver Ferns programme.
With a new-look Pulse, Parata wants to give her new teen recruits, Parris Mason and Paris Lokotui, the chance to shine in this year’s competition. And she wants to tap into other sports codes – like surfing – because, she’s learned, there’s always a nugget of knowledge to take away.
Being home brings a different pressure to perform, Parata admits.
“The expectations are huge – especially from my family. My parents have always been big Pulse fans.” Her family, including Aunty Patsy, came to watch the first game of the season in Palmerston North.
“Over in Scotland, I could just hide away.”
* After the first round of the ANZ Premiership, the Stars, Steel and Magic are unbeaten; Steel upsetting pre-league favourites Tactix, 54-36, while the Magic beat the Mystics, 64-60, on Monday.