She’s been hailed as the woman that saved New Zealand netball.
Well, other people hail that – for Dame Noeline Taurua herself, she’d much prefer people call her Noels and just get on with it, really.
And just because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it doesn’t mean Dame Noeline – sorry, Noels – has been any less vociferous about advancing the game she loves, Covid-19 be damned.
“In our first [training] camp I was a bit like a possessed woman,” the Silver Ferns coach says with an almost apologetic laugh.
“We’ve been going hammer and tongs to get ready for this international test series. It’s been a long time between drinks.”
Noeline’s story is now firmly stuff of legend in New Zealand’s sporting annals – the coach once overlooked for the top job, only to claim it years later and guide a struggling Silver Ferns to World Cup glory in one of Aotearoa’s greatest underdog stories.
(Jeez, when you say it like that you really have to wonder who’s making the movie. Anyone have a number for Taika?)
But Covid-19 certainly put a spanner in the works for Noeline’s plans to build on her and the Ferns’ incredible success at last year’s World Cup, as it’s put not so much a spanner as an entire tool kit into everyone’s collective 2020. But in true Noeline fashion, there’s been some upsides.
“Yeah, you now the great thing about Covid for me – and I know so many people have had a bad time with it – but during that time I had the family and, for once, I didn’t go anywhere! I still did work but it was at home, and it was really relaxing!
“But I’m looking forward to Christmas, I can really turn off then and really relax and not worry about Zoom!”
We take it you and calling technology don’t quite see eye to eye then?
“I’m still so bad at them, really bad,” she laughs. “As long as it’s just a button I have to press I’m sweet, but anything else goes over my head!”
But what doesn’t is her innate ability to get the best out of her players – so, we ask, as a woman who’s very good at turning around shitty situations and dealing with a whole heap of pressure, does she have any advice for those of us who aren’t, ahem, athletes, but might be dealing with other pandemic-related stresses and issues?
“Oooh, God – I wasn’t expecting that question!” she says, clearly surprised that someone would want her advice on anything not specifically netball-related (#humble).
“Well, for us, the messaging to the players has always been that, first, you’re human. Happy people make happy players, so we always say that you have to be dutifully honest and open about where you are and understand the importance of what are, actually, the most important things to you.
“And then it’s about the support networks around you – you can either use them to help support you if you need it, or use them to help yourself move forward. I think the messaging is the same, if you’re an athlete or not, it’s all about yourself as a person, figuring out what’s important and using those support networks. And, just living for one day at a time. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
“And actually, that’s been the beauty of it all to some degree, eh? Because of the pandemic, we had to well, not go back to the good old days, but keep things real simple. But there’s a lovely simplicity about life, we get caught up in things and sometimes we create our own stuff out of it.”
Along with actually spending some time with her husband Ed and her five kids, Noeline has been readying the Ferns for their first international outing since the start of the pandemic against the England Roses, following their successful campaign against the New Zealand Men, NZA team and the New Zealand under 21s – “what a series that was!” she enthuses – and holy heck, is Noeline excited to see some bloody good international netty back.
“It’s the first international female sport to get back underway so we’re really excited, and we hope we’ll have that great support from everyone,” she says of the three test series in Hamilton, which begins on Wednesday.
The series has also meant a huge undertaking and sacrifice for the England Roses, who spent two weeks in quarantine in a hotel in Christchurch.
“We must acknowledge the Roses,” says Noeline. “Quarantine is massive for them – for us it’s paying respect to them, they’ve done an amazing job to get themselves here.”
It’s a bloody tough ask, but England Roses co-captain Serena Guthrie says her team is just jazzed to be back playing netball.
“But thank you for acknowledging that!” she says with a laugh. “We’ve just been cracking on, and we haven’t really stopped to really think about what’s been happening, really. It’s great to have the opportunity, and there have been so many people who have tried to make it as easy as possible for us – Netball New Zealand, England Netball, the Army! It’s all been running incredibly smoothly.”
The Roses spent their two weeks in isolation at a hotel overlooking Hagley Park, and coped with a lot of socially distanced training and watching movies at the same time in their separate rooms – and for Serena, who’s currently studying, the time meant crushing a few assignments too.
“I’m one of the old ones in the team now, so I quite it, really!” she says.
Now free from their two week isolation in the Garden City, the team is in Hamilton to prepare for the test series – and while their eyes are firmly on the prize, there is something Serena is exited about doing after the games are over – heading to a pub for a pint, something most in England don’t have the luxury to do.
It’s a mixed bag of emotions, admits Serena, whose thoughts often drift back to those at home.
“People are really going through it, and you cant’ help but be mindful about it,” she says. “But we have a special opportunity here and we’re not going to waste it. And it is nice being here and not having to think too much about Covid!”
This year was also the year that Serena was supposed to not think too much about netball, as well, with 2020 marked as an opportunity to rest and recharge after more than a decade of professional playing. It was also the year she was supposed to get married as well – but, you know, Covid. Instead, she’s been doing a lot of gardening – a hobby that she described as her “happy place”.
Still, the legendary midcourter says she’s excited to pull on the red dress once again.
“International netball is tough – it’s not a walk in the park. So right now it’s about doing whatever we can to prep for battle!”
2020 CADBURY NETBALL SERIES
Claudelands Arena, Hamilton
7.30 pm Wednesday 28 October, Friday 30 October, Sunday 1 November
For tickets, click here
Every match will be live on Sky Sport
Main image: Michael Bradley