Proteas bloom at Netball World Cup

At the 2003 Netball World Cup in Kingston, Jamaica, South Africa didn’t feature among the top tier nations, Norma Plummer was Australia’s new coach and New Zealand was crowned champions. Over the next 16 years, much reshuffling would take place.

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Their journey to the pinnacle of world netball could not have been more different. From the Land Down Under where the road to the top was paved with gold, from the dusty township streets and daily treks for water, and from the capital and heartland of South Africa and a cherished childhood.

But for nearly ten days at the 2019 Netball World Cup in Liverpool, Ma ‘Norma, captain Boh and vice-captain Chits, and the rest of the Protea team, managed something that the national cricket and football teams weren’t able to do so far this year – to give South African sports fans hope that we can stand shoulder to shoulder with the biggest and best in the world. “You are awesome!” echoed on social media.

Between the Roses and Silver Ferns, the Diamonds and the Sunshine Girls, the Proteas – Bongi Msomi, Karla Pretorius, Lenize Potgieter, Sigi Burger, Maryka Holtzhausen, Renske Stolz, Erin Burger, Izette Griesel, Khanyisa Chawane, Shadine van der Merwe, Phumza Mawen, Zanele Vimbele – bloomed and blossomed. And although no silverware were added to the trophy cabinet, they garnered bragging rights and respect in spades. The team’s fourth place finish (1st New Zealand, 2nd Australia, 3rd England) was the best since 1995 when they returned home with the silver medal. In addition, each of the players’ bank accounts grew by an additional R300 000 after sponsors Telkom and Spar came to the party. However, it’s still a drop in the ocean compared to their male counterparts (I’m just saying …).

With fiery play the chosen twelve brought relief from the icy winter weather for their loyal fans thousands of miles away at home. Goal defence Karla Pretorius was also crowned as the Player of the World Cup.

From Australia’s Sunshine Coast (where she plays in the local Suncorp Super Netball League), Pretorius finds it amusing when asked her about her transformation from a bottle of chutney to the “silent assassin” of the netball court as she has been described by New Zealand coach Noeline Taurua.

“It’s a nickname from university days at Kovsies. First it was Chutney, after my maiden name of Mostert, and later it just became Chits.

“Of course I am very grateful for the award I received. Proud too, because I know I represent not only myself, but my family, South Africa and my story. And that this will be the beginning of someone else’s story, just as it once was my story, when Erin (Burger) received the same award at the 2011 World Cup in Singapore.

“I have always dreamed of playing netball on a bigger stage and I’ve managed to see it through with confidence in myself and hard work, a philosophy instilled in me by my parents. But everything I’ve experienced and achieved so far is purely by grace and I for that I can only be grateful. ”

Social media was buzzing with what the Proteas were busy achieving in the birthplace of the Beatles, including a win over Jamaica (still the world number two at that time) and a mere two goal defeat against Australia (then the reigning champions). For a while netball was trending and messages and hashtags such as #World Class and #Respect were repeated and shared numerous times. There was also “A Nation Is Inspired,” by hubby Werner Pretorius.

Pretorius says she and the rest of the team were caught somewhat off-guard by the wave of encouragement and support.

“We were overwhelmed with all the support and it felt almost unreal with so many people following the netball. I’ve never experienced it like this before. We are beyond grateful.

“And even though a medal win was not on the cards and our performance in the last match (against England) was not our best, it should not in any way overshadow the entire trip to the World Cup. We wanted to finish in the top four, and we did.”

With ‘Asimbonanga’ from the recently departed Johnny Clegg number one on the team’s music playlist, it was precisely this road they walked together that made the difference between then and now, Pretorius says.

“The bond between us, on and off the court, played a huge role. We are all different and from different backgrounds, but we chose to work together towards a common goal and to be successful. And in the end it came very naturally.”

That it took an Australian to help achieve South Africa’s rise in world netball over the past four years may be somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow. But Norma Plummer, coach of the Australian World Cup winning teams in 2007 and 2011, and her compatriot Nicole Cusack have now put the foundation in place for a promising future. And just at the right time with the 2023 World Cup to be held in Cape Town.

“She is a legend of the sport and her insight and knowledge of the game is remarkable. The way she brought the team together and grew the confidence among the players, that’s what makes her so good. Her legacy will hopefully remain forever,” says Pretorius.

Captain Bongi Msomi, who first started playing netball in the Hammarsdale township outside Durban at the age of 16, also sings Plummer’s praises. 

“Every team plays to win, but we have played in the past just not to lose too far. We have improved so much and are now at a point where we no longer have to worry about the score, we can only concentrate on our performance. So when you look where we were and where we are today, we are a very different team and definitely better players.

“What a wonderful journey it was with Norma and Nicole, it was an honor to be part of this experience. We wish Ma ‘Norma all the best, we wish we could keep her forever.”

It is through Plummer’s influence and experience on the world stage that South African netball players have been given the opportunity to show their mettle in the leading leagues in England, Australia and New Zealand. Pretorius made her first jump to the English club Bath in 2016, but it wasn’t long before she was picked up by the Sunshine Coast Lightning in the tough Australian league. She was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) in her first year there and last year she shared the club’s Player of the Year award.

According to Pretorius, there is only one reason why she packed her bags for Down Under.

“Australia has the best netball league in the world and all the top players are in action here. It’s a professional environment and as a netball player it has taken my game to the next level. Plus I get paid to do something I love. In South Africa this is not the case, one still has to work full time and then squeeze netball in somewhere. This is a big challenge.”

Since the Proteas’ return to a successful World Cup campaign, pleas to make netball in South Africa a professional sport and establish a proper professional league have been echoed in parliament. If Netball Australia can invest almost R390 million ($40 million) in the sport in the Pacific region over the next four years, why can’t it happen here? In addition, it would be extremely foolish to destroy what had just been accomplished in Liverpool. Furthermore, it is high time that the big corporates in South Africa do their bit to nurture the social impact that sport has on a nation.

The South African netball team in action at this year’s World Cup had that typical sporting combination of youth and experience. Erin Burger was in action in her fourth tournament, Msomi and Pretorius each made their third appearances and Khanyisa Chawane made her debut.

Does that mean we’re going to see Chits in action in front of her home crowd  in Cape Town in 2023?

“I’m taking it year by year. I will continue to play as long as I enjoy it and I feel I can make a contribution.

“I am vice-captain of the Proteas and also now at the Lightning. This is what this type of environment does to a person; you can’t help but become a better player, a better leader, a better person.

“I have grown so much over the last few years. I learned a lot about myself, so I just keep being myself and being a leader in the best way I can.”