Never expecting to get a shot in New Zealand’s top netball league, Chiara Semple is home from five years in England and is a surprise weapon in the Magic’s arsenal this season.
She remembers crying her heart out all the way from Auckland to Heathrow.
It was 2016, and Chiara Semple, a green 19-year-old from west Auckland, was flying to England to play netball for Team Northumbria in the Superleague. But it wasn’t what she wanted.
A stand-out shooter through the New Zealand schools and age-group sides, Semple’s dream was to play for her country at the 2017 World Youth Cup. But she’d just been dropped from the U21 squad, and trying to balance university and sport, she considered quitting netball all together.
Then her old school coach, former Silver Fern shooter Te Aroha Keenan, offered Semple a life-line – a place in the Northumbria team she was coaching.
“She rang my dad first and asked if I could get an English passport,” recalls Semple, whose father, Craig, was born in England. “My parents were like ‘Yeah, she’ll be really keen, it’s a great experience, we want her to go’.
“But as soon as my dad rang me, I said, ‘No I’m not going over there’. They didn’t have any of their games televised over here, so I was definitely not going over there for eight months away from my family.
“Then I decided I was going for one season, to get the experience and then come back. I was crying the whole flight over there. Oh my goodness, so dramatic.”
Yet Semple ended up staying for five Superleague seasons. And she got to that World Youth Cup – but playing for England. Winning a bronze medal but snapping the ligaments in an ankle.
Covid-19 brought her back home for what she thought was a brief stay till netball in England fired up again.
But now she says she’s home for good, finding her place in the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic and beginning to stamp her mark on the ANZ Premiership.
“Who would have thought a pandemic would do this for my career?” she says.
When she made her Magic debut in the opening game of the season, at home in west Auckland against the Mystics, goal attack Semple shocked the crowd by scoring Magic’s first six goals of the match – when all eyes were on her goal shoot, Australian captain Caitlin Bassett.
“It was great; no one knew who I was,” Semple says. They went on to win 64-60.
“I haven’t gone down the basic route that people travel to the ANZ Premiership. A lot of them go straight from school, so I thought I would never get to play – that my time had been and gone at 24. But I’m so grateful I went over to England and got all that experience.”
She’s glad she listened to Mum and Dad.
Semple grew up in Massey, following her mum Rachael, who’s of Māori and Samoan descent, into softball and netball.
When she hit high school, she was lured to Mt Albert Grammar by the school’s netball coaches, Keenan and former English international Paula Smith.
“They wanted me in the prems, but I didn’t think I was even coordinated then. I was just really tall,” Semple says.
She became part of the MAGS netball dynasty – the school dominating the national school scene for eight years. Her partner in the goal circle during her victorious time there was Maia Wilson, now the Stars and Silver Ferns frontline goal shoot. They were both part of the New Zealand side that won the International Schoolgirls Challenge in Adelaide in 2014.
Semple also played for New Zealand Secondary Schools alongside Sam Winders, now her captain at Magic. “It’s surreal to be in a team with Sammie again,” she says.
When she left school, Semple couldn’t break into any of the national league franchises and slipped out of the NZ U21 squad. That’s when Keenan came calling.
After that tear-filled flight to England, Semple was hit by a “massive culture shock… It was cold and a bit scary to start with.”
Although she battled with homesickness for the first few months, she began to love her new life playing at a higher level of netball in the Superleague.
“I definitely think it made me a different player, a better player,” she says. “I was 19 and some of the people I played against were women. At MAGS, I was young, fit and fast and I thought that’s how you had to always play.
“But playing against women, you realise you have to use your body and your brains. I played with different shooters – shorter, taller, some who couldn’t jump – and it made me step up.”
You can see it now in her deceptive feints, her subtle placement of the ball into the circle and her quick change of angle. She’s not afraid to put up the long shots, either.
“And the whole experience made me an independent person too,” she says. “I was used to going home to a cooked dinner, and suddenly I had to do that myself. I was growing up.”
Semple still wanted to play at the World Youth Cup in Botswana, but for New Zealand. When she couldn’t make any inroads there, she was invited to trial for the England U21s under coach Tamsin Greenway.
“The girls didn’t really like me at the start. They were like ‘Who’s this girl from New Zealand pretending she’s from over here?’,” Semple says. “But then everyone started to realise my play was different.”
It wasn’t exactly the World Cup experience Semple had hoped for. A stomach bug wiped out most of the English Roses team early in the tournament, then two minutes into the quarterfinal against Jamaica, Semple suffered a freak injury, rupturing the ligaments in her ankle. With her leg in a moonboot, she watched the Roses beat Fiji to capture bronze. New Zealand won gold.
Semple came back home for her five months of rehabilitation, and was taken back for a third season with Team Northumbria. But at the end of that 2018 season, when Northumbria withdrew from the Superleague because of cost cutting, Semple tried in vain to break into New Zealand’s premier competition. But she was now considered an import having played for England at a World Cup.
So she returned to England, picked up by the new team, the London Pulse, where she played for what amounted to 1.2 seasons.
“The first season was quite disheartening – we only won two games,” she says. “But in 2020, we got a new coach, a new team, and we shocked everyone by winning the first two games of the league. And then Covid happened.”
Worried she wouldn’t be able to return home, Semple booked her flights back to Auckland the day after the Superleague was suspended. She arrived the day before New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown.
With little to do but train at home, Semple made a video highlights reel from her English career. “But I never thought I’d be sending it to a netball team,” she says.
“I sent it to Te Aroha who said she could send it to the franchise coaches who might be looking for a training partner.”
Magic coach Amigene Metcalfe called Semple the day after watching the video.
“I was really straight up with her and said ‘I’ve been training but I’m not at my fittest, I’m not at my prime right now. I’ve been enjoying life back at home’,” Semple says. “But Amigene said she knew I had the goods.”
She also got a call from Pulse coach Gail Parata, who’d coached Scotland’s Strathclyde Sirens in the Superleague. “She was interested too but I was really keen on the Magic, because it wasn’t as far from home,” Semple says.
“And I liked what Amigene had to offer. The Magic didn’t have a good year last year, but they have a really big legacy. And she wants to restart that.”
Metcalfe says ‘Chi’ (Semple’s nickname) has brought a lot of positive energy to the Magic.
“And she has a great sense of humour. She’s a really smart netball player with a sweet shot and that’s what was obvious from her highlights reel,” she says. “We knew her skillset would complement the rest of our playing roster.”
Semple has loved playing alongside Bassett, one of the legends of the game who’s also making her first appearance in the New Zealand competition.
“Even though she’s so experienced, and won all these championships, she’s still willing to learn off us, the younger ones,” she says of herself and Khiarna Williams. “I can really tell why she’s been so successful. Even off the court she’s a really cool person, really down-to-earth and funny.”
It was teenager Williams and Semple who anchored the shooting circle in Magic’s comeback in Sunday’s clash with the Stars, getting within two in the final spell before losing 55-51.
Semple wants to “stay home for good” now. She wants to settle down with her partner and “continue for years with the Magic if I can – stamp my mark on New Zealand netball.”
“That’s not me looking forward and saying: ‘I want to be a Silver Fern’. That’s me taking it one step at a time.”
* In other games in Round 3, a fast-closing Pulse couldn’t catch the Steel, 56-52, and also losing their Silver Ferns midcourter Maddy Gordon with an ankle injury. And back from her ankle injury, Tactix shooter Te Paea Selby-Rickit almost pulled off the comeback of the competition, helping turn a six-goal deficit into a tied game with the Mystics with 13s left, but a long bomb from Peta Toeava was turned into a match-clinching goal from Grace Nweke, the Northerners winning 53-52.