Electric defender Jane Watson is back in the Silver Ferns squad after the birth of her daughter, but she won’t be rushing out on court – she’s prepared to play the long game in the lead-up to next year’s World Cup defence, she tells Suzanne McFadden.
For a player whose netball career has been instinctively built on blistering dashes to hunt down balls and nosebleed leaps to defend almost every shot, you might think Jane Watson would be struggling with her new necessity to go slow.
But this is the new version of Jane Watson, Silver Fern and Tactix defender. This is Watson, the mother.
Her daughter, Tia, was 14 weeks old on Tuesday, and unsurprisingly consumes almost all her waking hours (nothing prepared Watson and partner, Santana Nicholls-Hepi, for the lack of sleep, she admits). And she’s more than okay with Tia demanding all the attention, for now.
Even though 52-test international Watson was named in the latest Silver Ferns squad last week, and will meet up with them in Auckland today, she says she’s a long way from returning to the court, let alone running again.
“I think everyone thinks I’m good to go right now, but not quite,” she says. “I’m a little bit nervous thinking what it’s going to be like playing netball again; it feels like forever ago.”
Well, the Silver Ferns’ vice-captain’s last appearance in the black dress was March 2021 – when the Ferns beat Australia in the Constellation Cup – and her last in the Tactix’ red dress was the 2021 ANZ Premiership grand final, when she went in for ankle surgery immediately afterwards. Sadly, she’d suffered a miscarriage during that season, but announced she was pregnant with her daughter last December.
The 31-year-old Watson is easing her way back into training again, with the help of medical and fitness experts, the advice of other elite-level Kiwi sporting mums and the support of Silver Ferns head coach, Dame Noeline Taurua.
A 2019 World Cup champion, Watson has set herself a goal to be back on the netball court by the end of this year. “If that happens, it happens,” she says. “And if it doesn’t, that’s okay.”
It means she won’t be ready for next month’s Taini Jamison Trophy series against Jamaica, the Constellation Cup in October against the newly-crowned Commonwealth Games champions, Australia, or the FAST5 Netball World Series in Christchurch in November.
But defending the World Cup in South Africa next July is well within her sights.
“I’m really lucky Noels is so supportive with my timeframe in mind as well.” Taurua, a mother of five, has made it part of the Silver Ferns’ ethos to embrace netball mothers returning to the game. She’s been keeping Watson in the loop since she announced her pregnancy, and has made sure the Christchurch-based defender is part of the latest squad while she prepares for her comeback.
“I don’t know how I’m going to go when I return to running, I don’t know how my body will be,” Watson says. “But the take I have on it is to just go slowly and that’s all right.
“I have a goal in mind, working towards where I’d like to be. And if that doesn’t happen, at least I know I’ve done everything I can to try to get there.
“In a way there’s probably going to be a bit of pressure on me – probably most of it from myself. But on the other hand, my perspective has changed. My priority is now Tia. And playing and training might look a little different now, so I’m quite excited to see what that looks like with her now.”
Following the advice of a pelvic floor specialist, Watson isn’t ready to run again yet. “To be honest, I’m happy I haven’t jumped back into training. I don’t know how I would have coped. There’s no real routine at home yet,” she says.
Other mothers from the high performance end of New Zealand sport are also helping Watson navigate through this new territory. That includes a ‘mums and bubs’ group set up by the New Zealand Netball Players Association.
“The group has mums from all sports and it’s been very cool,” she says. “It’s a space where we can ask each other questions, and guests speak about their experiences and offer any help on how they found going back to training again. And to reassure you it’s going to be all right.”
And she’s phoned up her former New Zealand captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio, who’s also returning to the Silver Ferns fold after having her second baby, for advice.
Last week, Watson had help from Commonwealth Games swimming gold medallist Anna Simcic – the mum of three is Watson’s personal relationship manager, and a consultant to the Performance Wellbeing Group in Christchurch.
“I was in for physio and Anna walked up and down the hall with Tia in the pram for me, which was lovely,” Watson says. “She sends me messages now and again, and it’s just so good to know people genuinely care.”
Watson will meet up with Taurua, Ekenasio and the rest of the Silver Ferns squad on Wednesday as they assemble in Auckland for a marketing session. It will be baby Tia’s first plane flight.
“For the most part, she’s a good wee baby. We’ve had no problems with breastfeeding or reflux,” she says. But then there’s sleep. “Nothing can prepare you for waking up in the night a number of times.”
Watson watched the Silver Ferns’ bronze medal-winning efforts at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, often while she was cradling Tia, and was okay with missing what would have been her first Games.
“I’d prepared myself for it, and Tia was such a big distraction, which helped,” she says. “But I would still love to go to a Comm Games one day. I just don’t know if I have that much time left in me, though.”
The Tactix honour their pregnant defender, Jane Watson, shortly before daughter Tia was born at the end of May.
She’s looking forward to taking the court again with the Tactix in next season’s ANZ Premiership; Mainland fans will be particularly excited to see her reunited with fellow Silver Fern defender Karin Burger. The Tactix, the losing grand finalists in 2021, struggled this year without Watson’s fierce play and leadership.
Tactix head coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek says Watson’s return will have a “huge” impact on the side.
“In terms of her experience, she’s world class. Obviously, Jane is coming back from having a baby, so we have to make sure we’re looking after her – our Tactix family is hugely important to us,” she says.
“One of the good things about this year, with her absence from the court, is we’ve developed a lot more leadership within other people in the team…other people have had to find their voice and that is a real positive.”
Burger, also missing from the Commonwealth Games campaign, has been back to visit her family in South Africa while recovering from foot surgery. “She’s on her own journey back to the court,” Watson says.
“I’m very excited – I really want to win an ANZ Premiership. We’ve come so, so close. It will be amazing to go out there and give it everything on court for the Tactix again.”