Category: Features

Elle McDonald ready for the next step

A NEW addition to the Melbourne Vixens ranks in 2020, training partner Elle McDonald has had an explosive past year, selected for the 2019 Vic Fury squad in the Australian Netball League (ANL) and subsequently getting the call up to the Vixens for the 2020 Suncorp Super Netball season.

McDonald has not followed the typical state talent pathway, instead working her way up the ranks through the Victorian Netball League (VNL), honing her craft through the Under-19s to division one and then championship, winning a premiership with North East Blaze in 2017. 

“When I was younger I didn’t go through the state teams pathway that most of the other athletes would have but I was really lucky to still be playing in the VNL. And I thought I’d just work my way through the Under 19 Division and then was aiming for playing in that championship team and then once I was playing that championship team I was, you know, always trying to do the best I can,” McDonald said. “From there, I kept pushing myself and was lucky enough to be named in the team of the year for the last two years, I think, so I’ve just always been trying to improve myself and go one step further.”

The speedy midcourter has no issue traversing the court, able to ply her trade in both centre and wing attack, using her speed off the mark to enter the contest and be a real workhorse in attack.

“Last year I was really lucky to be asked to play in the ANL with Vic Fury, and win the Premiership with them too … I’ve loved every minute of it and it’s been challenging, of course, I’ve had my setbacks like many other people but in a way it just made me work harder and stronger and become a better player.”

But what should have been an exciting start to the year with Super Netball coming up, has been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with teams having to switch out regular face-to-face training for backyard workouts and video meetings.

“Yeah, it’s been challenging, but also good I think. Obviously having to train by yourself is very different, especially being used to a team sport and really supporting each other through tough training sessions and things like that,” McDonald said. “I think we’ve been very accountable, and we knew how important it was to maintain our fitness levels during isolation so we can come back as strong as possible when we were allowed to.”

Despite the challenge of taking on her first season of elite training at home, McDonald said that the team was able to conduct virtual training sessions via Zoom.

“I think we were lucky to try and squeeze in … things like that, to really get our feet moving, doing lots of footwork and ball skills against the wall or someone at home, if you had someone to pass with you occasionally, that was really helpful and I think for me, really important to try and keep up.”

That being said, the Vixens are back regularly training now meaning the midcourter can really work on those skills with a plethora of experienced players to learn off, with the likes of Liz Watson and Kate Moloney two prominent figures in the Vixens midcourt unit.

“Just being part of that environment is quite surreal sometimes but I think having role models like that to look up to and, as you said they’re so experienced, but they’re also just so encouraging and they’re really supportive of everyone.I think just being able to train alongside them and be challenged and challenge them is totally our role as a training partner and, yeah, as I said, it’s just such a good and professional environment to be a part of. I’ve been loving every minute of being part of the Vixens.”

McDonald said she is in the team to become the best player she can be, always pushing herself regardless of the level. While she has been exposed to elite pathways in the VNL and ANL along with the impressive coaching at that level, the midcourter says that the training environment with the Vixens is “amazing”.

“I just want to, you know, learn as much as I can from the coaches and the players that we have there … I’ve never had access to the facilities and the strength and conditioning coaches and programs that are put in place before, so I’m really just trying to make the most of it and just absorb as much as I can in that training environment.”

“I think we have been chosen as training partners for a reason. I think they obviously see some potential in us and we want to, you know, be the best we can,” McDonald said. “When you are going up against one of those experienced international players [you want to] to challenge them, because the more we challenge them the better we become as well.”

With significant breaks between seasons, many players pick up other fitness regimes and exercise to do away from the netball court. But for McDonald, mixed netball was a great way to keep up that match fitness and skill over the off-season, drawn to the speed and physicality of the game.

“I played mixed my last year of high school. I sort of was introduced to it and I just thought it would be fun, would get to play with a few of my friends and then I quickly realised just how talented some of the mens and mixed netballers were and how competitive that league was,” McDonald explained. “So to me, when the VNL season stopped, being able to play in the M-League competition was a really good opportunity.”

McDonald was part of the grand final winning Parkville Panthers in the 2019 Victorian M-League Mixed Premier Division, winning the female most valuable player award for the season. She said the physicality of the mixed competition helped improve her speed and ability to attack the ball strongly.

“I think it’s definitely improved my speed, just because I found like some of the boys, you know, they’re very athletic so being able to just turn and feed things quickly. As well as that, the physicality – just really having to claim that ball and pull in strong with two hands.”

While the 2020 ANL season will not go ahead, McDonald will hope to continue improving with the Vixens and prove herself among the main group, still able to play in the VNL this year. With the addition of rolling subs and the two goal Super Shot to the Super Netball season, the midcourter said that the Vixens are one of the teams in a good position with the wealth of talent at their disposal.

“I’m sure they [the Vixens] will adapt to whatever they need to, in a really positive way and I think if you look at the shooters in that team, you know, they’re very lucky to have some accurate long-bomb shooters.”

Sharelle McMahon: Pushing the boundaries

IN the midst of COVID-19 confusion, umpire supervisors at Melbourne-based Parkville Netball Competitions have taken it upon themselves to continue as much umpire-based learning as possible while matches are postponed. The competition is one of two umpiring Centres of Excellence in the state, seeing its Tuesday Premier Open division umpire cohort come together weekly during the pandemic to further their skills. 

With a combination of theory-based learnings such as now-disused umpiring papers and examining footage of the Victorian Netball League (VNL), the group has been gathering online every week during the unprecedented break and enjoying the odd Q&A throughout thanks to connections its supervisors have forged over the years – namely former VNL coach, Leesa Maxfield, internationally accredited umpire, Kate Wright and most recently, Australian netballer, Sharelle McMahon.

A player who redefined the goal attack position, champion netballer McMahon has become a household name in Australia over the years, pulling on the green and gold 118 times over the course of an outstanding 13 years internationally as well as a number of years with both the Melbourne Phoenix and Melbourne Vixens. McMahon has racked up the accolades over the years, debuting for Australia in 1998 and making her mark on international netball with her match-winning goal at the 1999 World Netball Championships final

Growing up in Bamawm in country Victoria, McMahon grew up playing a combination of netball and athletics, playing in footy-netball and association competitions. McMahon was eventually picked up for the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) at age-16, with that aspect of her netball journey culminating in a move to Melbourne at a young age to pursue her netball.

“The legendary Marg Caldow rang me and asked me to move down to Melbourne and take up a scholarship at the VIS (Victorian Institute of Sport), so that meant going to school at Wesley College for year 11 and 12,” McMahon said. “That was really hard and initially I didn’t want to do that. Initially I thought ‘nah, I think I’ll stay, that sounds too hard!’” 

“With some encouragement and some really great support around me I took that jump at 16-years-old and moved down to Melbourne and, you know, it was a great experience, I’ve worked with some amazing people over the journey. And that started with Marg Caldow so I feel very lucky with the people that I’ve worked with.”

A big challenge at the time however was McMahon’s homesickness. While she had her support network in Melbourne, the young goaler still wanted some home comforts, one of which was getting to return to her hometown and close-knit family and friends to play in the footy-netball league where possible.

“One of the things we said to Marg Caldow when we were talking about whether I would come to Melbourne was as long as I can go home on the weekends and play! And so she allowed me to do that, but sometimes not as often as I would have liked.”

But heading home for the footy-netball league opened up a new can of worms for McMahon, who had progressed with Caldow from being a self-confessed ‘free spirit’ on the netball court, to having a bit more structure in her game play and having to adjust back to the country level.

“One of the things I do really clearly remember is working with my coach on my rebounding. I used to rebound from behind and kind of flick it over and take the ball, jump up and grab the ball, and I used to get called for contact a lot in the country doing that.”

“My coach got some umpires to have a look and was like, ‘she’s not touching them when she’s jumping up to get that ball!’” McMahon said. “I think my ability to be able to do that was surprising to some people and so I was getting called for contact when probably I wasn’t contacting, but you know there was that adjustment that I had to make when I was going back both with my play and what I was experiencing.”

Adjusting to the umpires continued throughout McMahon’s career, as McMahon brought up how there were times when, even at the top level, she sometimes had to adjust the way in which she played, not only for the players on court but the umpires who were officiating, whether it be at the domestic or international level.

“That happened right throughout my career. We spoke about this a lot in the Australian team … each country has a different style of play, each country has different strengths, so we would have to adjust what we did according to that. And we actually approached how we were being umpired in a very similar way.”

“Depending on which coach I had, Norma (Plummer) was very big on reading umpires and adjusting to that … we used to watch videos about what calls are being made and how we could adjust to that more quickly when we were in the game. So, you know, as you say at those different levels you have to adjust but that happens right through whatever level you’re at.”

With international umpires coming together from across the world to umpire world-class competitions such as the Netball World Cup (then-World Netball Championships) and Commonwealth Games, different interpretations between umpires and their respective experience can sometimes also factor into how matches play out and the quality of contests in those matches.

“They (some umpires) just interpreted things differently, they had a different style, just like us athletes, we had different styles when we were coming from different countries and I guess in those different levels that’s the same, everyone’s got a different style and different strengths and different ways of reading it, probably more so with the Australian level.”

McMahon says that where players and coaches have a massive influence over what happens on court, the umpires have just as big a role in how they officiate matches and to what extent they allow the contesting of play and testing of boundaries – with McMahon herself one who would time and time again try to push that boundary to the limits.

“One of the things I always liked about playing netball was not just the challenge against my opposition but the challenge against myself, looking at what moves I could make, how small was that gap that I could get through, really wanting to kind of challenge myself on that,” McMahon said. “And if I was allowed to get through that tiny gap, even though there was a bit of contact, well probably next time I’ll try and get through a smaller one!”

“If I was allowed to do that, probably next time I’ll do it a bit more until I find where that line is. And if the line is a little bit further than what you thought, well, that’s where the play will go. That’s kind of how I always approached it, rightly or wrongly, so I definitely think that the umpires can have a huge influence over the style of play and the contest, and how far that goes.”

While those were some of the on-court, boundary-pushing opportunities that McMahon took to gain the best positioning or access to the goals, she also spoke about some of the post-netball opportunities she has had in coaching and commentary roles after retiring from international duties in 2011 and netball overall in 2013.

“I think in many ways, when you’ve been around for as long as I had, you’re a coach even though you’re only a player anyway – you’re always working through tactics and helping your teammates out, figuring out what their strengths are and how to get the best out of them. So I’d always loved that part of it, and getting the best out of people is what drives me.”

“I went straight into broadcast, but I was given the opportunity to continue working with the group (Melbourne Vixens) and probably from a selfish standpoint, I was really keen to do that … I moved out of home when I was 16 and lived in an elite training environment where I had been around people like that, inspiring me I guess in many ways and supporting me for 20 years. So I think for me the thought of going cold turkey on that didn’t sit very well.”

“It’s always been about opportunity, you know, when I had the opportunity to move down to Melbourne I wasn’t sure but I took it and you know there’s been many moments like that in my life that I’ve kind of gone – ‘I don’t know if I should do that’. And it might be too hard or it might be outside my reach. But I’ve tried to always just say yes to those things, and give it a go.”

“People asked me how I chose netball over athletics. It was because the opportunity came up in netball first. And so that’s what I jumped at and went with,” McMahon said. “Those opportunities kept coming up in netball, and what I had to do was make a decision between coaching and commentary last year, which was really hard because I love commentary, I really enjoy that. But the opportunity to work with a group like this and Simone (McKinnis), and learn from her from that perspective was something I was really excited about.”

Tune in later this week for PART 2.

Thank you to Sharelle McMahon and the supervising team at Parkville – Joel Owen, Juleen Maxfield and Penny Carlson – for giving Draft Central access to this session.

Note – All questions throughout the meeting were contributed by the aforementioned umpiring cohort and supervisors, with just snippets of the hour-long meeting making the cut and much of the conversation revolving around umpiring.

Sharelle McMahon: Pathway to the 1999 World Netball Championship

IN the second instalment of our chat with Australian netball champion Sharelle McMahon, we take a look at her netball journey and that 1999 gold medal.

PART 1 – Sharelle McMahon: Pushing the boundaries.

McMahon’s pathway to the top level went a little differently to how it goes nowadays, with the talented goaler introduced to some familiar names along the way who propelled her into the world of elite sport. 

“When I talk about my development and how I came to be in Melbourne playing netball, I have to talk about my athletics part of my story as well,” McMahon said. “I actually was lucky enough to be coached by [Olympic gold medalist] Debbie Flintoff-King for a period of time, she ran some coaching clinics throughout Victoria … out of that group of people that she worked with right across Victoria she selected about 15 of us to go up to the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and train up there with her.”

“So I was 13-years-old at that stage, maybe 13 about to be 14,” she said. “I was really young and it was really the first time that I’d experienced anything like being at the AIS or seeing Debbie Flintoff-King and I took an enormous amount out of getting to know her and in many ways to me it kind of opened my eyes … she can do something amazing like that, why couldn’t I do something like that. “And so for me, that relationship with Debbie although it was only pretty short-lived was really significant for me.”

Fast-forward a couple of years and McMahon went on to debut for Australia in 1998, before sinking the winning goal at the 1999 World Netball Championships to catapult her into netball stardom. 

“Being able to take it (netball) further and I guess replicate what I saw Vicki Wilson do in some ways – I remember watching her in the 1991 World Cup and I’d never seen netball played at the elite level, never. I’d kind of never even realised there was an Australian team!” McMahon said. 

“I clearly remember thinking, I want to do that. “That looks so, so fantastic. “And so, to actually be named in the team alongside her for the first time, it was kind of surreal. “It was really like what am I doing here. But it was amazing.”

The 1999 World Netball Championships final against New Zealand was littered with contentious decisions by the umpires that are still brought up even 20 years later.

McMahon ‘controversially’ entered the court during the latter stages of the third quarter of the final amidst confusion from both teams and in a physical and close encounter against the Ferns, there is plenty that was questioned both at the time and still today.

Jill McIntosh, our coach, had come over to me, actually not long before I went on the court,” McMahon said. “So, I don’t even know how long I was on the court for that in the third quarter, a few minutes, I think. “But she had come over and said to me ‘you’re going on at three quarter time so that’s what I had expected.

“I had been told I was sitting on the bench and so I had put my mind into that and was fully into that, and possibly should have been a little bit more ready to go on court because when Jill did come over and tap on my leg it gave me a huge shock to think that I was actually going out on court so that was my kind of initial reaction, and then those couple of minutes in the third quarter were a bit of a blur.”

What was nerve-wracking for spectators was amplified on the court, and while Australia was down by a solid margin by the final change, the instructions on how to turn the match on its head were clear as the teams returned to the court.

“I will never forget the feeling in the three quarter time huddle when we were down by six goals, and I think then went down to seven early in the fourth quarter,” McMahon said. “But Jill was very methodical about what we had to do and it was only a couple of turnovers is the reality of that situation. “When I talk to the girls about that we clearly remember that message from her, don’t think about the bigger picture or trying to make up the – oh my god, six goals, how do you do that – let’s break it down. It’s only three turnovers, and that is easily doable and we actually did that really quickly.”

“We were all just single minded about being able to get this game back, so you know I just threw myself into the game, probably literally, really. “And I remember Jenny Borlase screaming at me that whole quarter, ‘drive! drive!’ and so that’s what I was doing. “Wherever I was going. I was going hard and I didn’t care who was in the way or what I was doing. That’s what I was doing.”

“It was goal-for-goal for quite some time because we got the margin back pretty quickly, and then Donna Loffhagen had the ball under the post of course with only 20 seconds to go – I know there was 20 seconds to go because we had a time clock on the bench and I looked over and I remember the scores were level and I knew that it was New Zealand’s centre pass next. “And so, I fully remember standing on the court looking down as she was taking that shot thinking, well that’s it we’ve lost the World Cup. “But she missed, and what an amazing rebound it was – when I see that footage of Liz Ellis jumping up and taking that rebound, that is not easy to do. Being able to get up and take that rebound.”

“Maybe we’ll talk about some of the calls that led up to that situation, I’m not sure but then the ball came down court; did Kath Harby-Williams step, possibly, I don’t know; did someone replay the ball, possibly; did I contact when I took the ball for that last time, I don’t know, possibly! AlI know is that when Liz got that rebound, I just switched back into playing. I wasn’t fully conscious about the dire situation we were in really, because I just went back to playing. So when I took that shot, the enormity of it really wasn’t on my shoulders because I was just turning and taking a shot. I didn’t have time to think about it, I put the shot up and that was that. And it was only when the umpire signalled full time that I realised that meant we had won the game.”

“I don’t know the right way to explain how I tackle that situation but the reality is for me is that I just put everything out there, I’m not going to think about the things that can go wrong, as much as I can I just I just wanted to get out there and do everything I possibly could, so that I knew that I’d left everything out on the court and not be able to walk off thinking ‘if only I’d done that’, that was my mindset and that’s how I kind of got to that stage, I guess.”

McMahon went on to play in three World Cups and four Commonwealth Games campaigns, collecting a combined four gold medals along the way. But an elusive fourth World Cup in 2011 evaded her as injury struck.

“I had watched Vicki Wilson play in four World Cups and there was part of me that thought I would love to do that… so that World Cup that we were preparing for, that I was going to captain the Diamonds, was only three months away,” she said. 

“You know, without probably making really firm decisions on it, it just felt like the right time to retire so I was ready for that … and then I snapped my Achilles – thought actually someone kicked me, I was very angry about that – and then I turned around and realised that no one was standing there, and that was bad news.

“I think kind of post that and when all the emotions settled down, I just didn’t feel right having my final moment on the netball court being carried off with a ruptured Achilles, it just didn’t feel right.”

While McMahon retired from the international scene with that injury, she made a triumphant return to the domestic competition with the Melbourne Vixens before retiring overall in 2013.

Thanks to Sharelle McMahon and the supervising team at Parkville Netball Competitions – Joel Owen, Juleen Maxfield and Penny Carlson – for giving Draft Central access to this session.

Note – All questions throughout the meeting were contributed by the aforementioned umpiring cohort and supervisors, with just snippets of the hour-long meeting making the cut and much of the conversation revolving around umpiring.

Te Paea Selby-Rickit loving the new challenge

JOINING a new team is no easy feat, but joining a new team amidst a pandemic is even harder and something that new Tactix recruit Te Paea Selby-Rickit did not expect to encounter in her first season with the side. But despite the rocky start to the ANZ Premiership season, the 28-year-old is relishing the new opportunity.

“Yeah, I’m really loving it actually. Obviously, I was in Dunedin for quite a long time, I was with the Steel for a long time,” she said. “So it’s something different. Like playing with new people and it’s been a good challenge for me and learning from a new coach and stuff like that, but so far, I’m really loving it.”

The former Southern Steel goaler opted for a change of scenery in 2020 after spending her entire netball career with the Steel and wanting to broaden her horizons.

“I’d been ready for a change for a while. I’ve lived in Dunedin for a while, and I was sort of, yeah, a lot of my friends from uni had all sort of moved away.  And I think I just needed a new challenge and something different,” she said.

With Selby-Rickit open to new possibilities she was lured by good friend, Tactix captain and Silver Ferns defender Jane Watson to join the Tactix this season.

“I’m quite close with Jane Watson from the Tactix. When we were away with the Ferns, she was often telling me about how much she enjoyed the Tactix and how they had quite a good environment up here in Christchurch. So yeah, she sort of definitely was someone that helped me,” she said.

Joined by her two older sisters in Christchurch throughout isolation, the goal attack had plenty of time to not only reset and get her body in order but also catch up on the things she had been missing.

“So we just pretty much just did a bit of training and a lot of cooking and baking. I love to bake which was quite good, caught up on a lot of sleep there were a lot of sleep ins to be honest,” Selby-Rickit said.

“I know it’s a bit of a tough time for everyone but personally I enjoyed it we haven’t really had a chance to have a good break in a long time so it was a good time for me to rest up some little niggles, I had like a bit of a sore Achilles just before going to lock down so I’ve been able to get that right and so yeah, I’m good to go now,” she said.

While there is no denying that her specialty on court is her cool, calm and collected demeanour going to post, when asked about her speciality in the kitchen, Selby-Rickit struggled to just settle on one.

“Obviously, a couple of banana breads like everyone, you know, I mix it up really. I didn’t really cook the same thing twice. I just tried a lot of new things. It was a good chance for me to learn how to how to cook a few things,” she said.

Training in isolation has looked a little bit different for Selby-Rickit, focusing on running and getting her fitness up to a high standard before the season resumes, while also making the most of her home gym.

“Just hit the streets and have been running. I luckily had a netball court, outdoor netball court just down the road from my house which also had a track around it. So I was able to do a bit of my training there,” she said.

Allowed to restart training as a whole team Selby-Rickit has welcomed back the contact and camaraderie associated with netball and is focusing on re-establishing those strong connections ahead of Round 2.

“We’re just trying to revisit the things, we built some really good connections right before the lockdown and before game one. And so we’re just trying to revisit that and slowly work our way back to, you know, back to where we were,” she said. “We’re obviously first going up against the Steel. So that’s going to be really exciting one for us. But yeah, we’re trying to refamiliarise ourselves with all our plays, and all our structures and things like that.

When playing with the Steel, Selby-Rickit used to suit up alongside her sister, Te Huinga Selby-Rickit but now is faced with the prospect of playing against her. The two sides are set to go head to head in the first round back of netball on June 20, a match-up the talented goaler is looking forward to.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a bit weird, but obviously, being in the same team with her for so many years, I’ve played against her a lot in training games and training matches and things like that. So I’d like to think that I know what her strengths are, but she probably knows what mine are as well. So it’s going to be really interesting. It’s probably going to be more nerve wracking for my parents, having to watch us against each other. But I’m really excited. It’s going to be a good first game,” she said.

With no crowds allowed at games due to the COVID-19 restrictions, Selby-Rickit admits that it might take a while to get used to but is excited about getting back on court and playing netball.

“I think it maybe potentially less pressure less, you know, noise and things like that don’t have to worry about noise and we should be able to hear each other communicating on court,” she said. “Because definitely for me in the past playing for the Steel, the crowd definitely helped us … we sometimes called them our eighth player so that’s going to be really interesting not having that aspect.

“We do practice a lot during training you know, trying to keep communication up through loud noises but without that I don’t know, I think hopefully it’s going to make it a little bit better. We love having our fans there but not having to worry about the noise side of things.”

Pharmacist by day, Southern Steel star by weekend

NEW Zealand netball sensation Shannon Saunders has doubled as an essential worker throughout the COVID-19 outbreak with the Southern Steel midcourter focusing on her job as a pharmacist throughout the pandemic.

“I’m probably lucky because I’m classed as an essential worker in New Zealand because I’m a pharmacist, so I’ve still got to do a wee bit of work and get out of the house and kind of help the community a wee bit in that instance,” she said.

Saunders has got the balance between netball and being a pharmacist down to a fine art with the highly touted midcourter working both jobs throughout the standard netball season.

“It’s definitely challenging and yeah I don’t do as much pharmacy work now as I used to, but yeah I try and get a couple of days in throughout the week if I can. I do a bit of individual training, I’ll do it before and after work and then can just turn up to team training which is good so they allow me that flexibility to be able to do a bit of both which is nice,” she said.

While Saunders has been kept busy over the counter, she has not skipped a beat off the court, training hard in isolation and resorting to other measures to stay fit and active in isolation.

“Yeah so our trainer was pretty good and kind of gave us the structure of what they need us to do but also gave us flexibility to kind of mix it up day to day,” Saunders said. “But just trying to keep lots of running involved and as we’ve gotten closer to coming out of lockdown we have done more change of direction and more court specific stuff.

“Then just whatever weights you can do at home really. “I’ve got a little bit of equipment so just trying to maintain as much strength as possible but we are quite realistic that it is not going to be the same as if we were in the gym.”

Renowned for her silky ball movement the centre has been a permanent fixture for the Steel across the past nine years and played a key role in pushing her side to the finals last year. Although they bowed out in straight sets, Saunders was pleased with their efforts, but is aware that 2020 will look different and could be very taxing on the players given the amount of travel.

“Now that the draw has changed we now have to fly to Auckland every week for 10 weeks so that’s going to be challenging in itself because we are both placed in two places. We are about two and half hours apart so we travel a lot anyway to train together as a team and then having to fly to Auckland is going to be pretty tough. But it is just exciting that the competition is going ahead,” Saunders said.

“Some of the other teams can fly home after a game and all that whereas we can’t. We always have to stay and that kind of drags it out a bit more and limits our ability to train as a team. But we are used to always having to travel, so we just get on with it.”

The Steel have had a shake-up to their 2020 roster with Silver Ferns goaler, Te Paea Selby-Rickit departing the club and Trinidad and Tobago goal attack Kalifa McCollin coming into the mix. With plenty of speed to burn and an element of unpredictability about her, Saunders has quickly adapted to the new look line-up.

“We’ve got a wee bit of a different team this year so I think we are just building on the new connections and combinations that we have and just trying to put out a really solid performance this year,” she said.

“We are lucky we have got Kelly (Kalifa McCollin) from Trinidad and Tobago, so she’s stepped into those shoes and I think it’ll be interesting to see how she’s been going over lockdown because she’s such a long way from home and it’s been so good of her to stay over here and kind of commit to the team. But she adds that bit of flair to us and she’s super quick and just adds a different dynamic to what we are used to,” she said.

With a fresh season also comes new opportunities, with young wing defence Kate Heffernan vying for more court time and hoping to have a lasting impact on the competition.

“She’s that little bit more confident and sure of herself as a player and I think that is really kind of showing out on court when we’ve been training so I’m excited to see how she builds this year,” Saunders said.

Standing at 174cm, Saunders uses her speed, dynamic footwork and spatial awareness to have an impact in the attacking third. Her partnership with fellow midcourter and wing attack, Gina Crampton is arguably one of the most threatening duos in the ANZ Premiership having played together for the past 10 years and at an international level. The two can make something out of nothing and create space seamlessly such is their class.

“I think we just know each other inside and out and I know what she is going to do before she probably does it and then we also have a great relationship where we can have those conversations,” she said.

With the ANZ Premiership set to recommence in less than a month it’s full steam ahead for Saunders who is excited but is also harbouring a couple of nerves ahead of the restart.

“I’m a little bit nervous,” she said. “I feel like, I’m like do I know how to play? But I think once we get back out there and just that competitiveness and excitement when it’s a tough close game and that physicality as well I’ve really been missing.”

“I think everyone is looking forward to seeing the end of it and just looking forward to getting back out on court.”

Diamond Liz Watson focused on Super Netball success with Melbourne Vixens

LIZ Watson is one of the most recognisable names in the netball world. The Melbourne Vixens turned Australian Diamonds wing attack provides a vital cog through the midcourt, using her netball nous to deliver crucial ball to her goalers and provide an option on circle edge with her impressive hold and clean hands. But like much of the world, Watson is having an unprecedented break from netball, having to switch up her plan and structure for the year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


While it was tricky in the beginning, Watson said the adjustment to isolated training has come in time thanks to routine and constant contact with her Vixens teammates and friends.

“I guess it was a bit tricky at the start when it all kind of happened but now I’ve got a bit of a routine and I’m still keeping busy with uni, we check in with the girls every day at Vixens which is really helpful,” she said. “So it sets up the day on what we’re required to do.”

Settling into a routine has made social distancing that little bit easier, working into training plan that fits around other ways of keeping busy during the pandemic.

“Before we went into lockdown we were pretty much match fit and I guess building up to competition mode, and now we’ve kind of had to strip that back and go right back to basic kind of fitness and strength,” Watson said. “Our training plans have been sort of up and down, so that’s probably the most tricky part and I think now we’re just starting to incorporate a bit more footwork and netball specific drills.”

“I love going for a big long walk in the morning, that kind of gets me moving and I guess sets up the day, but we are following a training program from the coaches so it’s set out every day – there’s either gym, conditioning and a bit of footwork stuff, but I also am loving doing a bit of palates and yoga, which is good because I don’t usually do that as much throughout the year.”

The past weekend was shaping up to be a blockbuster round one battle against Queensland Firebirds in the Suncorp Super Netball, one that Watson would have hoped to see replicate their 2019 matches, during which they defeated the Firebirds on both occasions. 

“It’s probably just, you know, the mental and physical idea that you’re preparing for a match, but now we’re going right back to sort of that preseason fitness base kind of work,” Watson said.

“We’d be having a pretty much a normal week at training but I guess that it’d probably be a bit lighter and throughout the back end of the week we’d have a light training session at the venue which would have been at Melbourne Arena for us. “That’s where we were playing round one so we would have headed there on the Friday for a training session and then played there on the Saturday, so a lot different at the moment, but yeah it is what it is, I guess.”

On the international stage, Watson is vice-captain of the Australian Diamonds, joining forces with a number of her Super Netball rivals. She said the vice-captaincy has given her a lot of confidence in her game, able to share the leadership load with a number of her teammates.

“It’s really special,” she said. “I think the one thing I love the most about it is that you actually are voted in from the team and I think that it’s really important to have that belief and confidence and trust from the teammates to put you into that position. “That gives me a lot of confidence going out there and actually being able to be the vice captain alongside Bass (Caitlin Bassett) as captain so it’s a really special group. “Everyone has to come together, obviously we’re rivals throughout the year but then we are teammates.”

Teaming up with quality players from across the country, Watson has had to switch up her game style on the odd occasion, namely when taking the court with one of her round one opponents in dynamic goal attack, Gretel Bueta. Watson also took on somewhat of a different role in the Diamonds in 2019, playing more of a centre role than her typical wing attack.

“I absolutely love playing with Gretel because you don’t really know what she’s going to do,” Watson said. “I think that’s something that we’ve learned and are really encouraged, is to let Gretel play the way she plays and we kind of mold in around that.”

“I think I definitely feel it more in my lungs in centre, rather than wing attack. “But yeah, I think that they’re quite similar in their positions and the gameplay isn’t too different… in all our analysis sessions we’re always talking so I was across what centres have to do typically in a game so from a game sense it wasn’t too bad.”

At the Vixens, Watson feeds a couple more conventional – but not any less talented – goalers in Caitlin Thwaites, Tegan Philip and Mwai Kumwenda, typically teaming up with captain Kate Moloney to feed into the goal circle.

“A good mid courter, our job is to make our goalers look good and we need to do that by playing to their strengths,” Watson said. “So someone like Tegan is very fast and speedy and Caity, she can hold really well and get that high ball in, so as a mid courter it’s about working with each goaler and actually enhancing their strengths as much as possible and letting them do their thing and kind of fitting in around their their gameplay.” 

With plenty of talent coming up through the pathways, Watson is well aware of the Victorian netball pathways given she followed them through in the traditional sense, even playing much of her junior netball at the State Netball and Hockey Centre where the Vixens train and hosted their impressive semi-final against Collingwood Magpies last season.

“I’m very lucky I’ve played and pretty much followed the Netball Victoria pathway to a tee,” Watson said. “I’ve been there ever since I started really, 11-years-old.”

Watson said the Victorian pathway helped curate her competitive streak, with the winning culture something that helps push every young player to keep putting their best out onto the court. 

“We always have a strong history of winning in Victoria, and right through nationals, Victoria were always expected to be in that top two, if not number one,” she said. “So it brings that competitive side and I think it’s great that we’ve got such a really structured pathway for young girls and they know the step by step to become a Vixen, and it’s easy when kids say to you, you know, how did you become a Vixen and I say ‘I followed this pathway, this is what you can do to get there’. “We’re very lucky in Victoria that we have that winning culture and that success and that’s because all our pathway is planned out right from when we’re juniors.”

Simone (McKinnis) has made a Vixens squad so we’ve got an extended squad of girls who are up and coming and I think that’s really important,” Watson said. “It’s so special. “As a young kid I remember going into the Vixens environment, even if it’s just for one training session, and you just see how they train and then you go back and you say, ‘that’s how I need to be training if I want to become a Vixen or be at that level’. “So I think it’s great that we’ve got this squad, and then they can go back to their clubs and I guess drive that standard with their local clubs too so I think having the extended squad has been really valuable for us.”

While the 2020 season is ultimately still up in the air, Watson said the Vixens’ season aims still ring true despite not yet taking the court. Having made finals last season but fallen short, the tenacious Vixens want to win back some of the glory that has evaded them in the Suncorp Super Netball and bring the trophy back to Victoria.

“We want to be the team that comes out of isolation the best… yes we can be fit and strong and deliver our programs but it’s that mental toughness that we’ve always been working on and that’s the side that I feel has let us down previously, that mental side of our game, and if we can come out of this isolation the toughest strongest team mentally, then nothing can really stop us,” Watson said.

As for fellow netballers who are itching to get back on the court and may be feeling a bit sluggish or unmotivated, Watson said it is useful to remember that everyone is in the same position and acknowledge that plenty of others are in far worse situations across the globe.

“I think it’s important to know that everyone’s probably feeling a little bit like that, even us as elite athletes do feel like that … I always think I’m so lucky – I am still playing, I still get to train and I still get to talk to my teammates every day, it’s just in a different way and that’s just the way it has to be right now,” she said. “I think just acknowledging that – yes it’s hard, but if we just sit here and say it’s hard then we’re not going to really move forward at all.”

“(We’re) all trying to work to come out as I guess, fitter and stronger but also just mentally ready to hit competition mode and, yeah, hopefully have a really good season. “Fingers crossed we do play some sort of netball in the back end of the year.”

Malawi shooter focused on SSN return

WITH netball on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak we take a look back at our interview with star Malawi goal shooter Mwai Kumwenda which appeared in our 2019 Netball World Cup magazine.

THE 2018 year was a big one for netball, and no less for Malawi Queens’ star goal shooter, Mwai ‘MJ’ Kumwenda who took the netball world by storm with her flair and accuracy to post. The star goaler single handedly tore games apart with her dynamic movement and laid back style making her an integral member in both the Melbourne Vixens and Malawi sides.

Kumwenda’s form in recent years helped Malawi beat the New Zealand Silver Ferns in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, while her performance in the 2015 Netball World Cup saw her awarded ‘Player of the Tournament’, putting her skills on show again and again credit to her accuracy, consistency and phenomenal footwork on court.

“Playing in the World Cup was a good experience for me – that was my second World Cup with Malawi. It was good to play in Australia as I had been playing for Peninsula Waves and the Victorian Fury before being in New Zealand, so it was like playing at home,” she said. “In 2015 I stayed in New Zealand to train and prepare; just like the Commonwealth Games last year, I trained with the Vixens until very close to the tournament.”

“Getting Player of the Tournament was a surprise to me because there were so many good players from all the countries there.”

The humble goal shooter said representing Malawi is a big honour, especially knowing she is a role model for young women.

“I was so excited because I was representing my country and playing with my Malawi girls so to know I tried hard enough for them was good.”

“It means a lot. Most of the young Malawi players look up to us to know that if you train hard, you can do very good things with your netball. I grew up in a village 10 hours drive to where I played netball in Blantyre City so I like to show girls especially from my area that they can do amazing things in life. I am so lucky.”

But while Kumwenda has proved she has the skill and work ethic to be a phenomenal player, a devastating fall in Round 13 of the 2018 Suncorp Super Netball season saw her rupture her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Despite injury and missing out on the World Cup, Kumwenda’s outlook and recovery so far is admirable.

“It’s going well. I’m spending time in the gym every day with the Victorian Institute of Sport and Vixens high-performance team. I am working with Tayla Honey and Rahni Samason every day. I’ve started running again and it feels good,” she said. “I don’t know when I’ll be back on court but I can’t wait!” 

“The support I get from the Vixens players and coaches is amazing. I still feel a part of the team and I’m so proud of how the girls are going in Suncorp Super Netball.”

“With the Vixens, I have been able to talk to physios and strength and conditioning coaches but in Malawi we don’t have that. They have a team doctor who travels but the recovery after each game is up to the individual player.”

Despite not having a role in the Malawi Queens’ 2019 Netball World Cup campaign, Kumwenda is keen for the competition to begin and says the Queens have the talent to get the job done.

“If Malawi train hard, they will be top five of the tournament … They are very talented girls, they are a good team so I think if they train hard, they can do well. I think Joyce Mvula will do very well because she has been outstanding in the English league. She’s a good goal shooter.”

“The best team will win – ha! I think it will be very tough and I’m excited to watch.”

Anstiss rising to the top for West Coast Fever

WITH netball on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak we take a look back at our interview with up and coming midcourt star Jess Anstiss which appeared in our inaugural magazine.

The fire still burns for West Coast Fever midcourter, Jess Anstiss after narrowly falling to the Sunshine Coast Lightning in the Suncorp Super Netball grand final last year. The Fever had an outstanding 2018 season rocketing up the ladder after an average 2017 campaign. West Coast were arguably the most dominant team with their accuracy to post, clinical defence and physicality across the court an integral part of their game plan.

Anstiss was a key cog in their finals assault with her defensive work around the circle second to none clogging up the attack end of her opposition. Standing at 171cm the tenacious wing defence is not one to shy away from a fight with her fierce and competitive attitude a key feature of her game.

“I’m a very competitive person so I do really like the competition aspect to it and when you win that feeling and doing it with nine other girls out on court yeah I really enjoy the relationships that you build,” she said.

2018 brought many memorable moments with Anstiss describing the surreal feeling of stepping out onto her home court with the crowd behind her.

“I’ve never really experienced too many grand finals in the past. WA has never really gotten that far and the atmosphere especially playing at RAC Arena was amazing in front of the home crowd. I guess the nerves are different to what just a normal game is and the lead up in the week is all very different but in the end of the day it was a normal game but the hype around it was insane,” she said.

Though her side made it to the big dance they fell agonisingly short and with the memories of the loss still fresh in the mind for the midcourter, she is hoping to make amends come season 2019.

“I guess we are going to try and use that grand final loss in a positive way this year and use it as fire in the belly and really come out. Throughout the pre-season it has been a really big driver for us to go that extra little bit so that we can try and win the grand final this season. It is hard to try and back up such a good season but I know this pre-season has been harder than last and yeah we seem to be stepping forward in the right direction I think,” she said.

The West Coast Fever have maintained a settle line up with the likes of bookends Courtney Bruce and star Jamaican shooter Jhaniele Fowler signing on. Both players offer a great lot of character to the club on and off the court, with Fowler renowned for her relaxed nature, and captain Bruce using her fire to spur the team on.

“Jhaniele is amazing to play with. She’ll catch any ball that you put up and make your pass look good which is great for us centre court. But she also brings character to our team as well, she’s a quiet little assassin back in the shooting. But she brings lots of smiles and confidence to the whole team,” she said.

“Yeah Courts, loves to show her emotion I guess and that’s how she gets firing… she’s our captain so we look up to her and she gets out there and leads by example and comes out and takes those amazing intercepts. So we love Courto for the way that she shows her emotion and the smiles at the umpires make me laugh sometimes,” she said.

Since her introduction at the club Head Coach Stacy Marinkovich, has done wonders for the Fever providing plenty of experience and netball knowledge having played at the highest level for many years.

“Stacy has been an amazing coach for me especially she just seems to be able to bring the team together and works individually with athletes and knows exactly how to give feedback to individuals which is something not all coaches have the ability to do. So yeah she’s been great for the club and is a real big reason behind all of our success,” she said.

Given her dominant season for the Fever with her quick feet, hands over pressure and drive across the court Anstiss was rewarded for her hard work earning Australian selection.

“Yeah it was amazing to be selected into the squad last year. Something that I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a little kid. Yeah to be named amongst some of the best athletes in Australia it was a real honour,” she said.

But the accolades did not stop there for the humble wing defence taking out the Suncorp Super Netball Young Star award and Fever Best and Fairest award in her debut season. Anstiss ended the season with 12 intercepts, 31 deflections and 88 feeds showcasing her work both in defence and attack to provide that last pass into the goal circle.

“Yeah that was a big surprise, I didn’t think that was coming. But I guess individual awards are great but that wouldn’t come without the team playing around me, so I don’t really like getting them,” she said.

But before making it to the grand final and representing her country, Anstiss’ netball journey started at a young age following in the footsteps of her mother.

“I always grew up watching my mum play netball and then I guess it was just a natural thing to go into in primary school. Then mum coached me all throughout primary school and high school. So I guess watching her growing up made me want to play and be like her,” she said.

Anstiss did not always play through the midcourt, with the 22-year-old playing in goal attack for many years through her early stages before making the switch given her shorter stature. Swapping bibs did not seem to hinder the development of the talented netballer who has highlighted her versatility to swing between wing attack, centre and wing defence modelling the likes of New Zealand netball royalty, Laura Langman who has an impressive 151 caps to her name.

“The most prominent that I guess I still even look up to is Laura Langman. But in terms of Australians Nat von Bertouch was another one that I absolutely loved watching,” she said.

“I guess with Laura Langman it is her absolute doggedness and ability to both attack and defend and I guess Laura’s ability to read the play and same with Nat von Bertouch. I guess she was a more attacker player but just the way she knew exactly where to be at the right time,” she said.

Sky is the limit for Hinchliffe

A DIAMOND of the future, Queensland Firebirds defender Tara Hinchliffe was dropped right into the thick of it throughout the 2019 Suncorp Super Netball season with the 21-year-old tasked with the challenge to hold up the defence end.

The young defender started playing netball at age seven, relishing the opportunity to get off the sidelines at her older sister’s game and get onto the court with twin, Maddie who is a training partner with the Firebirds.

“I absolutely love having a twin sister. We used to do everything together whether it was different sports but netball always seemed to be the thing we looked forward to the most.”

But Hinchliffe was not always a defender. In her junior years she often found herself under the post going for goal rather than defending it, but a stroke of genius from her coach saw her switch ends and pull on the goal defence bib.

“We both started playing shooter, we were always down the same end together so that was always fun,” Hinchliffe said. “I went down the other end and I didn’t really mind it and the coaches liked it because we were both tall. That’s how it all started, then I stuck in defence.”

Hinchliffe was lucky enough to be mentored by former Firebirds and Diamonds captain Laura Geitz last year, with the youngster picking up plenty of tricks of the trade from Geitz and crediting the talented goal keeper to making her feel so welcomed at the club.

“I guess for me coming in as a young player it was all sort of new for me so I could look to Gabi on one side and Geitzy behind me and know that they backed me in any situation and know what to do,” she said. “They would always be the first ones to respond and tell me what to do. I was more than happy to just follow their lead. That was a really good experience in my first year to know what it was like.”

The Firebirds struggled throughout the 2019 campaign only notching up the one win for the season ,but that did not stop captain, Simpson, from spurring on her troops and encouraging them to play their game and try their hardest.

“When you have a good leader you just want to play for them. You want to work hard for them,” Hinchliffe said.

“Gabi just likes to have fun. I love it when she smiles at you on court, she’ll make a joke and just lighten the mood so that’s something different that she brings and I think that works for our team because we are younger and we like to just enjoy it as well.”

Despite the trying season the Firebirds faithful have remained as boisterous and passionate as ever, with Hinchliffe absorbing the colourful and decorated culture associated with the club.

“I know this season has been one of the toughest seasons we’ve had, knowing the fans are still there makes it really exciting and you want to turn up and you want to work even harder for them which I think is special to the Firebirds, that I’m not sure all the other clubs have.”

The young defender has taken it all in her stride, absorbing the pressure and stepping up to the plate time and time again while her partnership with fellow 21-year-old Kim Jenner developing at a rate of knots.

“We both know we are young and are the biggest critics of ourselves. To know that we can both look at each other and trust each other. We often just get on court and look and say let’s just play netball, we don’t need to overthink it,” Hinchliffe said.

“We are both still very young to be playing SSN and both being 21 I guess we both look at each other and say can you believe that we are really here?”

Hinchliffe was immersed into the Firebirds last year with coach, Roselee Jencke a key figure in her life, helping to guide her down back and foster her netball skill.

“Sure there’s a lot of hard work but she’s also a great person and relationship builder. As soon as I came in I knew she’d look after me, she’s your biggest defender and protects us as well which we are grateful for,” she said.

Hinchliffe has already had a highly decorated career playing in the Under 21 World Cup in Botswana and was recently recognised for her impressive performance on the court with a call up to the Diamonds Development Team, an accolade she was not really expecting.

“Yeah it’s pretty crazy, I see myself being two years in SSN so I definitely wasn’t expecting anything to do with Australian netball. But it’s very exciting, I think the squad is a great opportunity to have a mix of the younger and more experienced girls,” she said.

“Any day to wear the green and gold dress is a good day, I remember Geitzy sending that to me a few years ago.”

Jacqui Russell’s rise back to the top level

TWO time premiership player Jacqui Russell is no stranger to finals playing with both the Queensland Firebirds and Sunshine Coast Lightning in 2011 and 2018 and with another finals campaign about to start will be looking to add another to her collection.

But Russell’s journey has had plenty of ups and downs. After winning the premiership with the Firebirds in 2011, Russell’s netball journey took a different turn, stepping away from the game and moving to England to pursue her dreams while also getting her teaching degree. Despite all the changes, one thing remained the same her love for netball.

“My plan was always to come back and get back into the ANZ Championships as it was called at the time of course being a bit young and cocky thinking whatever I wanted to happen would happen and it didn’t really pan out that way” she said.

Unfortunately, she was struck down with injury during her hiatus breaking her leg and subsequently forcing her to take the long route back to the top. But her desire to play never faulted with the talented midcourter working hard to give her a fighting chance to get back to the highest possible league.

“I did spend a bit of time playing in the state league and in the national league which are both still very good competitions were not really where I wanted to be playing I guess,” she said.

But after spending years plying her trade at the lower levels, Russell doubted her chance of making it back to the top level of netball.

“I think it was pretty safe to say I had given up hope of playing back at the sort of professional level,” she said.

After coming in as a replacement player last year for the Lightning, Russell landed on her feet making an immediate impact on the side with her defensive pressure, offensive drive and commitment to the team.

“It was almost by chance I think that I ended up getting a go with Lightning in the end and it was really I think because of my connection and relationship with Kylie Byrne the Assistant coach that I have known since I was sort of 15 or 16. It just so happened that they needed to fill a void in my position,” she said.

Staring down the barrel of another premiership, Russell is unfazed by the so called “minor premiership curse” with the Lightning wing defence backing her side to get the job done and go back-to-back-to-back ultimately making them the only team in Suncorp Super Netball history to win a grand final.

“I think another trend in the past couple of years of Suncorp Super Netball is that Lightning have won and I’m thinking that, that will be the trend that continues rather than minor premiership curse,” she said.

To hear the whole chat with Jacqui Russell tune into our Centre Pass Podcast below or listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or other podcasting platforms.