Vital Silver Ferns defender Jane Watson reveals she’s both ecstatic, and mindful, of her pregnancy. And, she tells Suzanne McFadden, she’s searching for ways to keep giving all she can to her netball sides.

Jane Watson will pack her training shoes for the Silver Ferns camp this week, just in case.

The Silver Ferns vice-captain, pregnant with her first child, has been invited to the camp in Wellington by coach Dame Noeline Taurua. But Watson isn’t sure yet what her role there will be.

Her baby is due at the end of May next year, but Watson has continued to train and keep in shape – especially on the comeback from her ankle surgery immediately after this year’s ANZ Premiership grand final. But she knows she has to be on limited exertion at the end-of-the-year camp starting on Wednesday. 

“I definitely want to stay fit. Whether it’s biking or running sessions, I’ll be doing something,” Watson, a veteran of 52 internationals, says.

But she definitely won’t be contesting for the ball. “I’d feel a little bit bad if I did, like the girls would hold back a little – because I do have a bit of a puku now,” she laughs. 

Rest assured, Watson won’t be taking any undue risks.

This baby is very special to her and partner, Santana Nicholls-Hepi – after Watson suffered a miscarriage during the ANZ Premiership season.

“I didn’t tell many people, and we had a game the next day in Nelson. It was quite full-on, but we were okay,” she says.

When Watson was first pregnant, the couple had been planning to start their family to work around the 2022 international netball season.

“That was our perfect plan,” the 31-year-old Watson says. “The timing would have been right for me to possibly make the Commonwealth Games [in late July next year]

“But you can’t always plan these things, and we’re very grateful that this has happened, regardless of the timing.

“And life is bigger than netball.”

But netball will continue to feature large in her life as she looks to help the Silver Ferns and the Tactix next season.

Captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio set a precedent in September, when she was involved with the Silver Ferns during their series with the English Roses, although she was heavily pregnant with her daughter, Luna (who’s now six weeks old).

It’s all part of Taurua’s philosophy on encouraging Silver Ferns to become mums, and with the right support, return to the game afterwards.

But Watson, who’s been a mainstay in the Silver Ferns defence under Taurua’s tenure, admits she wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news of her pregnancy to the Ferns head coach.

“I just felt so bad. But straight away when I rang her, her response to me was really lovely. That reassured me that it was okay,” she says.

“Her caring, loving way and her support for us as individuals is so special.”

Watson knows she can turn to other netballer mums, too – she’s already asked Ekenasio for advice a couple of times during the pregnancy. “I’m sure I’ll be asking her a lot more as time goes on, that’s for sure,” Watson laughs.

She can also tap into Kimihia, the players’ personal development programme, introduced by the NZ Netball Players’ Association this year for all players in the ANZ Premiership and National Netball League. Tailored specifically for female professional athletes, Kimihia was created after an Ernst & Young report determined what netballers needed for their health, wellbeing and development, and in their life outside of netball. 

“It’s all about finding what the players need, want or need to learn. It might be about the female [menstrual] cycle, or it might be about finance,” Watson says.

“This year, the Tactix got someone in to talk to us about our pelvic floor, so we can be aware of it. Everyone goes through these things, but a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. But it might happen to half the girls in the team, so I think it’s really important that knowledge is out there.”

Silver Fern Jane Watson keeps the ball well clear of Australian shooter Kiera Austin during the 2021 Constellation Cup. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

Former Silver Fern Debbie Christian runs the programme, and says one of Kimihia’s key pillars is returning to play.

“We know Netball New Zealand have a great medical team to support the players through their pregnancy and afterwards, but we’re there to help them with that identity piece,” Christian says. 

“For Jane, imagine being one of the best netballers in the world then suddenly being on reduced capacity, and your body is changing so much. We want to make sure there’s someone there for those players as they’re going through those changes.

“These are women going through ordinary issues under extraordinary pressures. Under the spotlight, it’s way harder.”

Watson will also have the support of her personal relationship manager, Commonwealth Games swimming gold medallist Anna Simcic, who’s also a mum of three.

A fortnight ago, Watson broke the news that she was expecting to her Tactix team-mates, while they were at Hanmer Springs in their pre-season camp.

“I told the team on the first day [of camp], so they knew before everyone else. The girls were really shocked, but they were just so excited too. So it’s been pretty cool,” she says.

But Watson has discovered that being pregnant brings with it a whole new raft of responsibility.

“We went rafting and I had to get consent from my midwife to be allowed to do it, and to jump on the jetboat on the return. It’s just little things like that I didn’t think I’d have to consider,” she says. “We went to the hot pools as well, so I didn’t hop in the hottest one.”

Jane Watson leaps high for the ball thrown by her partner, Santana Nicholls-Hepi, at home in Christchurch during the first lockdown of 2020. Photo: Getty Images. 

Now in her second trimester, Watson is over the nausea, but she’s noticing other changes in her body while she’s working out.

“Coming off ankle surgery as well, my lungs are definitely burning more than they normally would be,” she says.

Watson is pleased with her comeback from the operation, where they created two new ligaments, removed some bone and “cleaned a few things out”.

The damage goes back a few years, to when Watson – one of the most aerial and athletic players in New Zealand netball – rolled her ankle, tearing ligaments.

“But I kept on playing without the ligaments for a few years. I had a very mobile ankle,” she says. “I think a lot of people do it, you just don’t know about it. You just bounce back when you don’t have them.

“But it got worse over time, with everything overcompensating for not having the right structure to my ankle. I was having to manage it a bit too much. So for my longevity, it was best that I got it done.”

Over the last fortnight she’s been increasing the load in her training, and feeling it in her ankle. But she’s confident her recovery is still on track.

Renowned for her athleticism and grit, Tactix goal keep Jane Watson goes high to block Magic shooter Khiarna Williams in the 2021 ANZ Premiership. Photo: Michael Bradley. 

The next year will look very different for Watson, but she hopes to play a part in the 2022 campaign for the Tactix, who came agonisingly close to claiming the ANZ Premiership title last season.

“I’ll still help out and offer my support and advice where I can. I still want to be part of the team and we just have to work out what that looks like once my contract ends,” she says.

“Though they’ll probably be happy not to hear my voice all the time.”

Watson has handed over the captaincy of the Tactix to fellow Silver Fern, Kimiora Poi.

“I’m very happy with that, she’ll be a great leader,” says Watson. The whole Tactix squad were involved in choosing their next captain, filling out a questionnaire so coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek could see if “any natural leaders popped up”.

“We actually have a lot of leaders in our team. There are five girls who kept popping up quite a bit, but Kimmi nailed it,” Watson says.

“Even though it’s hard not to be playing, I think I’ve actually accepted it now. So I’m enjoying stepping back and supporting everyone. It feels really right.

“Our environment over the past few years has really grown and it’s in a really good place. There are leaders right through the court – everyone has been growing as people too.”

Watson’s partner knows just how important it is for her to keep in touch with her teams; Nicholls-Hepi has played netball for the New Zealand Defence Force.

The couple met “many, many years ago” at the Wellington Sevens. “It’s been a long journey,” Watson says.  

“Santana is very happy – we’re both really looking forward to being parents.” They’re used to being surrounded by babies, with five young nephews and nieces.  

“We know it’s going to be very different, because we’ve had so much freedom, and time to spend with our animals. It will be funny to see how they react to having a baby in the house.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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