There were two spaces left blank in the team photo recreated by the invincible Silver Ferns of ’87 in Dunedin on the weekend.
Missing were the team members who’d passed away in the past four years – tenacious shooter Margaret Forsyth and beloved Silver Ferns manager Monica Leggat.
But neither ‘Marg’ nor ‘Monz’ were left out of the reunion of the Silver Ferns side who won the 1987 Netball World Cup in Glasgow – for three days, their photos were hung in the rented house that became the team’s gathering place.
“Everyone got quite tearful whenever we talked about them – they both meant so much to us,” said Leigh Gibbs, who captained that unbeatable side in Glasgow.
Emotions bubbled up, too, when the team spoke about the woman they’d been determined to win the silverware for, who they’d protected from critics; the coach who’d made such an impact on their lives. An icon of New Zealand sport, who was still very much a powerful presence in the room.
Dame Lois Muir.
Gibbs was the first of that remarkable team I bumped into on Sunday. She was at Dunedin Airport, picking up a rental car to drive to Invercargill for this week’s South Island secondary schools netball champs.
We were flying home after my husband ran an ultramarathon in the Great Naseby Water Race and I was part of his support crew…but I digress.
Gibbs said she’d been at a reunion of the remaining 14 members of the Silver Ferns touring party who’d dominated the 1987 world championships in Glasgow.
The team chose to meet in Dunedin, the home of their legendary coach, Dame Lois. It wasn’t a special anniversary – “just 36 years,” Gibbs said.
But Muir, now 88, had been unwell – her breast cancer returned last year after 25 years, and she had a second mastectomy. The team knew the coach they revered now found it challenging to travel, so they decided to come to her.
“It was no hardship for us all to go there,” Gibbs said. “It made it all the more special. Over the years we’d played a lot of test matches in Dunedin.”
Like the women who played for her, I have a huge soft spot for Dame Lois. She was the first Silver Ferns coach I ever interviewed – in 1988, the year after the Silver Ferns were crowned world champions for the third time.
I phoned Muir before the home series against Trinidad and Tobago. The woman who’d just won the Halberg coach of the year, whose silver hair was always flawlessly drawn back into a bun, seemed like someone not to be trifled with. Someone who could sniff out a nervy cub reporter by the squeak in her voice.
The third test was in Christchurch. “Are you coming down? You should definitely come down,” she told me.
So having convinced my editor, I walked into a back room of Cowles Stadium for the after-match press conference, and Muir spotted me. “You came!” she exclaimed. She didn’t know me from Adam back then, but she would always recognise me, and greet me with the same enthusiasm, warmth and camaraderie for the next 30-odd years.
When I started writing about international netball, the players of 1987 were the benchmark for Silver Ferns – for at least the next 16 years until New Zealand regained the world title.
Many of that ‘87 team had experienced the bitter disappointment of losing the title to Australia in Singapore four years earlier, and felt they’d let Muir down. They were determined it wouldn’t happen again.
In 1986, they’d lost five out of six games to Australia. “The media came out saying Lois was too long at the top, she needed to go, and we were quite protective of her,” Gibbs said.
The Ferns came out firing in Glasgow, unbeaten in all 11 games – crushing every opponent (including Australia) by at least 10 goals. A feat that’s never been replicated and is unlikely ever to be.
They were the epitome of a world champion team – each stars in their own right but closely bound both on and off the court; wanting to win for each other, but especially for the coach they held in such high regard.
“It was her fourth and last world championships, and what better way to finish for her?” said Gibbs, now community netball manager at Netball New Zealand. “We remembered over the weekend how Lois had the canny knack of getting the best out of us.
“There was great unity, even though we were all quite different personalities – which we saw again on the weekend. But we all had a common purpose, hugely facilitated by Lois. She’d grown as a coach as well, always ahead of the game and she challenged us. At times it was quite uncomfortable, but it was the best thing for us.”
Two shooters at different ends of their careers in Scotland flew in for the reunion from overseas – Marghie Matenga from the Cook Islands, Tracy Eyrl-Shortland from Brisbane.
Even the New Zealand umpire at that tournament, Dawn Jones, came down from Auckland for the get-together – at 83, the former principal of Diocesan School for Girls and past president of Netball NZ, is still dignified and elegant. The Ferns’ physio Margaret Harp – the first to travel with a World Cup team – was there, too.
In the line at airport security, I found Rita Fatialofa. We hadn’t seen each other for at least two decades. “Suzanne?” she said before hugging me. “At first, I thought you were an English netball player.”
In my dreams, Rita. Maybe she’d forgotten I’ve always been this short.
Fatialofa was the first netballer I associated with the word ‘flair’: her ability to deceive rivals with her speed, her look-away pass, and her swivel midair were astounding.
She’s now retired from school teaching and after coaching Samoa at two World Cups, she doesn’t have strong ties to netball these days.
But the weekend had been “uplifting and heartfelt”, she said, especially listening to Dame Lois reminisce with the same clarity as if it had been a game debrief.
The queen of the sleight of hand, Matenga showed she had lost none of her hand-eye skills. She won the team’s ten pin bowling competition – after claiming she’d never played before.
At the boarding gate, Tracey Fear showed me a video of Matenga’s dance ritual after bowling a strike (when she says ‘dance’ you remember Australian-born Fear, the first Silver Ferns captain I worked with, has kept a little of her twang).
Their excitement was still palpable. “It was as if we’d all never been apart,” Fear, a key defender in ’87, said.
Lining up to board their flight home, Fear and Julie Coney (who was Townsend when she captained the Ferns at their very first Commonwealth Games appearance in 1990) were holding single roses in black and white wrapping.
A bouquet of them had been left on Fear’s bed – a gift for each of the team from Judy Russell and Netball NZ.
Back in 1987, Russell, a life member of Netball NZ, had presented all of the players with a red rose immediately after their victory. She wanted to repeat that – to remember not only their success, but the team members no longer with them.
Coney wore her 1987 New Zealand tracksuit all day. “She’s the only one who could still fit it,” Fear laughed.
There was just one rule for the weekend: There could be no mention of the 2023 Netball World Cup, which came to a grim conclusion a fortnight ago with the Ferns losing the bronze play-off – their worst finish at a world championship.
Especially when there were two mums of the current Ferns in the ‘87 side – Wai Taumaunu and Annette Heffernan.
The team visited the NZ Sports Hall of Fame where the 1987 team were inducted, along with Dame Lois, Fatialofa, Taumaunu and Sandra Edge.
And they reminisced with Dunedin Netball members over morning tea at the Southern rugby clubrooms, and shared a five-tiered cake elaborately decorated in black and silver by local cake designer, Criollo.
And the no-doubt reluctant star of the weekend, Dame Lois, was in fine form. She met the team three times, and “shared so many gems – her memory and insights into why she did things,” Coney said.
“On Saturday night we got all of the ‘Lois-isms’ again – her incredible wisdom,” Gibbs said. “She’s still sharp as a tack.”