Normally fierce rivals, midcourters Mila Reuelu-Buchanan and Maddy Gordon have their first chance to play – and dance – together for the Silver Ferns against Jamaica. And both want to stay there for next year’s World Cup defence.
The easy part is making the Silver Ferns. The hardest part is staying there.
That’s the advice Ferns centurion Leana de Bruin gave Mila Reuelu-Buchanan; advice she’s working on and sharing with her fellow midcourter Maddy Gordon, as both look to keep their place in Silver Ferns after being recalled to the team to play Jamaica this weekend.
Reuelu-Buchanan has just one international cap from the northern Quad Series in January, while Gordon earned her two in 2021.
Both middies missed out on a place in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games team, although Reuelu-Buchanan was a travelling reserve.
Since the Games, the Silver Ferns have lost 206 international caps of experience in the midcourt. Shannon Saunders is expecting her first child, Gina Crampton has taken a sabbatical for the rest of the year, and Kayla Johnson is absent from the side. With the 2023 Netball World Cup in South Africa in July, Saunders’ return to the team for the pinnacle event is doubtful.
That opens up a huge opportunity for Reuelu-Buchanan and Gordon – who’ve never played on a team together before.
Reuelu-Buchanan saw the chance to travel with the Ferns to Birmingham as a “massive privilege”, but quickly realised it wasn’t where she wanted to be.
“It was almost bittersweet…it’s definitely driven me to work harder,” she says. “These opportunities are really important because the World Cup isn’t very far away; that’ll be the challenging thing.”
Gordon has battled injuries since her Ferns debut against Australia in last year’s Constellation Cup. But she came back stronger with the Central Pulse this year – the speedy midcourter playing all but two minutes of this year’s ANZ Premiership grand final, won by the Pulse.
“It was tough but I’ve worked hard behind closed doors,” Gordon says. “I’ve come back and I want to put my hand up and say I definitely deserve to be here.”
The Silver Ferns have three tests against Commonwealth Games silver medallists, Jamaica, in the Taini Jamison Trophy, with captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio also returning to the side after missing out on the Games team. It’s a chance for players to stamp their mark before the Constellation Cup in October, the four games split between New Zealand and Australia.
Against the Sunshine Girls, Gordon and Reuelu-Buchanan will line up in the midcourt alongside Whitney Souness (21 caps) and 22-year-old Kate Heffernan, who made her debut in Birmingham and played all seven matches at the Games.
A lack of experience around them doesn’t phase 22-year-old Gordon or Reuelu-Buchanan, 24, who say now is the time to bring in young players.
“At the end of the day, the priority is the World Cup so now is the chance for us to gain our own experiences internationally,” Reuelu-Buchanan says.
“As we know, international netball is a massive step up from ANZ [Premiership] so hopefully we’ll be able to play with a bit of freedom and not have that pressure on our backs.”
Gordon is looking forward to playing the exciting Jamaican style, but believes the young Ferns side will bring something different, too. “I think we’ll put out not a different, but quite an exciting way of how we play as individuals and what we bring to the team for the Ferns,” she says.
Gordon’s two Ferns caps came from last year’s Constellation Cup (played in March), where the Ferns won the trophy for the first time in almost 10 years, and the 2021 Quad Series, where she played one match against England.
Under Covid restrictions, both games were played without crowds, so Gordon can’t wait to have her parents, partner and a packed crowd support the team.
Reuelu-Buchanan’s one international cap came during a very Covid-precautionary England tour, so her friends and whānau are yet to see her play in the black dress.
“Although it’s not my debut, it’ll be my debut in front of my family if I get the opportunity,” she says. Her partner, Du’Plessis Kirifi, will be at Sunday’s second test after playing rugby for Wellington on Saturday night.
“I’m just really, really excited,” she says. “You forget what a massive privilege this is, to represent New Zealand. I keep imagining us running out on court and looking up to my family, regardless of whether I’m playing or not. It’s a special moment and obviously we won’t ever take that for granted.”
The Sunshine Girls’ squad is a largely different one from the team who beat the Silver Ferns, 67-51, in the Commonwealth Games semifinal.
Fan favourite Shamera Sterling and star shooter Jhaniele Fowler are both absent from the team, along with a handful of other key players – leaving just three of the team who won silver heading to New Zealand.
Despite facing a new-look team, Gordon is still relishing the chance to play the Caribbean style of netball.
“At the Pulse, we kind of play man-on [defence], which they do quite similar too,” she says. “So we train against that a lot. Obviously I like a good man-on-man tussle, so I’m quite excited for that.”
Reuelu-Buchanan is already planning how she’ll tackle the aerial flair of the Jamaican midcourt.
“All I know is that it will be physical,” she says. “They can jump high, their arms are long.
“So I’ll be navigating my way through that using my strengths to combat their style of play – whether that be working around the three-foot mark or playing a shorter game.”
With the Sunshine Girls missing some of their stars, it’s still a chance for growth and finding new combinations for the Ferns.
“Obviously we want to win, that’s always the number one goal,” Reuelu-Buchanan says. “But a lot of it will be getting girls out there, gaining experience, growing our connections. As long as there’s growth within the team environment and what we display out on court, I think that’s where we’ll be achieving the most.”
It’s also an opportunity for Gordon and Reuelu-Buchanan to play on the same team. Northland-born Gordon moved south to the Pulse as Porirua-born Reuelu-Buchanan headed north to the Stars.
“I feel like we are both quite ruthless players, body on the line, so it will be pretty cool to see us both out there, hopefully at the same time,” Reuelu-Buchanan says.
And it won’t only be their on-court debut together, as their partnership continues behind the scenes on game day.
Gordon has over 30,000 followers on TikTok, with her videos amassing almost one million likes in total; frequently featuring her Pulse teammates.
“I need a new pre-game buddy for my TikToks as Karin’s not here, so…” Gordon says to Reuelu-Buchanan, pointing out that she’d be the perfect dance partner, while Karin Burger recovers from a foot injury.
Reuelu-Buchanan is emphatic in her response: “Mads, sign me up please!”
*After a delay to Jamaica’s arrival in New Zealand, the three-test series between the Silver Ferns and the Sunshine Girls will now start on Sunday at 4pm at Hamilton’s GLOBOX Arena, with the second test moved to Monday 7.30pm in Hamilton. The third game remains at Auckland’s Eventfinda Stadium next Wednesday at 7.30pm.