Eye off the ball: Why did Netball NZ let our winningest coach get away?

by Fiona Barber / 23 May, 2018

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Former Magic coach Noeline Taurua (right) with her team.

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After the Silver Ferns’ Commonwealth Games clobbering, Fiona Barber asks why Netball New Zealand let our winningest coach get away.

So often in sport, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. New Zealand is an incubator for talent and in codes such as rugby league, teens brimming with promise are pounced on by Aussie scouts and whisked across the Tasman before you can say, “Here’s a one-way ticket and an NRL contract, young man.”

But in netball master-coach Noeline Taurua, we knew exactly what we had. In 2015, she and her impressive record with the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic were in clear view – but the sport’s powers-that-be let her go, anyway.

Incredibly, Taurua – the only Kiwi coach to win the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship, in 2012 – didn’t even make the final cut when Netball New Zealand was selecting a new Silver Ferns head coach. Fans and those in the netball know were baffled; Taurua, it was reported, considered the snub a “kick in the guts”.

Stuff sports writer Dana Johannsen has ventured that Taurua and the other top candidate to miss out, Australian Julie Fitzgerald, were overlooked for “reasons unrelated to performance”. Which raises the question, if not performance at elite representative level, then what? Surely it can’t have been lack of player support, given Kiwi netball greats’ public backing for the woman they call “Noels”.

In the end, Netball New Zealand threw its weight behind Southern Steel coach Janine Southby, a Kiwi with less experience and a patchier record in the ANZ Championship.

It would be fascinating to know what was going through the minds of the selectors, including then-CEO Hilary Poole and high-performance manager Steve Lancaster – both now gone from the sport. Their decision was confounding at the time, but in the tear-blurred hindsight following the Ferns’ all-time-low performances at the April Commonwealth Games (no medal and losses to, among others, Malawi and Jamaica), it seems nothing short of bonkers. The words chickens and roost spring to mind.

I wonder if Netball New Zealand’s independent review of the disastrous campaign, due for release in June, sheds some light on why Taurua didn’t get a look in. She had the pedigree (a former Silver Fern), the qualifications (a Master of Science in Performance Coaching) and, crucially, the track record.

If you’d been among the almost-9000 netball fans in the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on 17 June last year, you would have witnessed her team trounce the opposition in the grand final of Australia’s inaugural Suncorp Super Netball competition, regarded as the best league in the world.

After the Netball New Zealand rebuff and a season in which Taurua coached Southby’s old team, the Southern Sting, Australia came calling. Start-up club the Sunshine Coast Lightning beat other franchises for Taurua’s signature, so she packed up her family – she has five children – and life and shifted to Queensland. The move, said Johannsen, writing for the New Zealand Herald at the time, was “a slap in the face Netball NZ deserves”.

Although a new club, the Lightning’s rapid trajectory should surprise no one. It is a joint venture between the University of the Sunshine Coast and the Melbourne Storm, a brutally efficient NRL club with hard-nosed administrators who demand excellence and recognise a good thing when they see it. The Lightning recently extended Taurua’s contract to the end of 2019, with CEO Danielle Smith telling the Brisbane Courier Mail, “Noeline’s record spoke for itself before she got to the club and winning a premiership in her first year here only adds to that.”

Seems Taurua has the backing of the locker room, too – all but one of the international players she assembled have returned to defend their title. The exception, Kiwi mid-court maestro Laura Langman, decided to return home.

One of the most ominous signals that New Zealand had got it horribly wrong came last year when former Australia netball captain Liz Ellis told Māori Television: “I think that Noeline Taurua is hugely influential now in terms of the [Australian] Diamonds because she’s got these players and she’s teaching them all these sorts of things. They’ve had a pretty good look at what a Kiwi coach can do, so I think she’s going to end up being really valuable on this side of the ditch for us.”

And she is. This year, Taurua has been busy establishing an academy to feed talent into her team. Her Australian team.

There’s no suggestion Taurua won’t ever come home, but I’m sure she’ll be keeping a close eye on what happens when the Netball New Zealand findings are released. With the World Championships just a year away, and Kiwi international netball in the dark place, we all will. 

Noeline Taurua with the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, who she led to victory in the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship – the only Kiwi team to claim the title.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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