The Last Jedi

Honesty, determination, love. And not necessarily in that order. Dame Noeline Taurua’s devotion to netball, both on and off the court, is the stuff of legend.

In an often brutally tough, performance-driven environment, compassion and understanding still play a part in successfully reaching the pinnacle of the game, she says.

Words Shaun Summerfield Photos Vinesh Kumaran / Photosport

In an arena far, far away, an underdog team, written off after a humiliating defeat and led by a twice banished rejected general who had spent time working with the enemy, goes into battle destined for downfall. But guided and inspired by some hidden force, this team from the farthest outpost wrests the crown from a seemingly unbeatable foe.

The Silver Ferns' World Cup victory in 2019 is more than a fairy tale; it's damned near an epic George Lucas movie script.

Tears and streamers fell in equal measure as victorious captain, Laura Langman, lifted the trophy in Liverpool, the one-point triumph intoxicating for not just the Silver Ferns but an entire nation of sports fans.

Noeline Taurua, who had transformed the team from their Commonwealth Games catastrophe into world-beaters in less than a year, had arguably just secured as long a tenure as she desired; only, she wasn't sure if the desire was there.

"It seems crazy, but I want to know I'm the right person, not only for the players but for myself and the organisation,” she says now. “If it's not, then it's just too hard if I'm not the right person.”

Taurua, who was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2020 New Years’ Honours for services to Netball, says it’s about being straight up.

“I like to be upfront about everything and make sure everybody is clear about what our barriers are. I'm comfortable and confident with whatever decision is made. What I don't like is to get halfway through, and they want to kick me out; that's when I wouldn’t be happy.”

Netball has been part of Taurua's life since she first played as a child in Taupo. She was a shooter for the Silver Ferns from 1994 until 1999, when a knee injury ended her career as a player. Within three years she was coaching Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic. Two national titles and one Trans-Tasman title followed. With a successful record, 'Noels' seemed destined for the top job.

“I got to that place, but I'm very pigheaded as well; I wanted to coach New Zealand. I loved getting the best together and the possibility of being at the Commonwealth Games or world championships. It's the biggest stage for us in netball and something I've always wanted to be a part of, both as a player and a coach.”

Taurua wanted it, but Netball New Zealand didn't want her for the top job, despite several years in the assistant role.

"I went through the job interview three times over 12 years,” she says. “The last time I was thinking, ‘that's it, I've had enough. I'm not doing it anymore. If they want me, they'll have to come and knock on my door’."

Perspective has never been an issue for Taurua. Unashamedly driven as a coach, the number one priority has always remained family. In 2013, she stopped coaching to spend time with her five children. Today, with a home full of teenagers, her whanau are consulted before she takes on any coaching job.

“It's a big family affair; when I'm not at home, it puts a lot of pressure on the home front and the rest of the family has to pick up the slack. My kids are getting into their teenage years, things are happening in their lives, and they want their mum around. So, once I get that tick off, I have a clear process.”

In 2017, she was given the tick to cross the Tasman for a groundbreaking role as the first New Zealander to coach a top-flite Australian team with the newly formed Sunshine Coast Lightning.

“For us, Australia is the pinnacle, the number one in our sport,” she explains. “It was like trying to understand the Jedi. I always think that you need to go and learn from the best. Our NRL partner was the Melbourne Storm, so the expectation was to be there as well. That was the challenge, so to be amongst the peers who were the best in their sport was awesome.”

Taurua coached the Lightning to the title in their first season. It was a sign of what was to come. They followed that up with the 2018 title, and a minor premiership followed in 2019. The dates here are worth a look because Taurua had already been coaching the Silver Ferns for nearly a season; her final game as Lightning coach was the Grand Final against the New South Wales Swifts, two months after the World Cup win.

There is no question that Taurua is prepared to put in the mahi, but she also expects it from her players. Her on-court ethos is nothing short of brutal – destruction and domination of the opposition, and brutal honesty for her players, but always delivered with aroha.

“Over the years, I've learned where to draw the line, but also where I need to be honest. There's love, and then there is tough love – and you've got to show both. Honesty is my saviour. I think of how I would want my daughter to be treated; I really feel for the players, and I understand what it's like when you're not selected, or something happens that you're not happy with, or you're not confident about.

“I know what that's like, so I always put myself in their shoes. It's a tough line because our environment is hard, and it is about performance. So, either you do, or you don't, but there is also a human element, and if you get the balance right, that is when the power comes through.”

Five players were sent home from the Silver Fern pre-season camp earlier this year because they failed to meet the coach's demanding fitness level standards. No names, but no apologies either. Taurua wants training to hurt.

"I break them or make them feel uncomfortable in our training environment when we are there to support them. Rather there than have it happen in front of other people when they have to win a game – that's heartbreaking. So, I want them to be comfortable in being uncomfortable, and for them to be able to handle the pressure, otherwise, I haven't done my job.”

So, it’s tough love. But it is love, nonetheless.

“They're bloody beautiful women; poetry in motion. When at that moment in time, and everything has come together you see the hard work and the enjoyment of being out on the court. People see the athleticism, the prowess, the female strength; that what we aspire to put out there every time we take the court.”

Until 2023, it will be Taurua who sends the Ferns out onto the court. The lure of a Commonwealth Games Gold and defending the World Cup in South Africa was enough to make her commit to a longer than usual coaching contract. Now talk of possible Olympics consideration for Fast5 Netball has her looking further into the future.

“Will I be back for more? I need to learn to keep my mouth shut sometimes!" she laughs.

Sequels can work. Just ask George Lucas.

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