Laura Langman is that rarest of athletes; one so respected and admired that even the fiercest of opponents genuinely want to see her back on court. Barred from international netball since late 2016 due to a stand-off with Netball New Zealand (NNZ), Langman’s shock departure from Australian shores, announced yesterday, may crack open the door for her possible return to the Silver Ferns.

A national representative between 2005 and 2016, Langman’s domestic and international achievements could fill an encyclopedia. Although missing an elusive Netball World Cup gold medal, her trophy cabinet is crammed with domestic premierships, two Commonwealth Games gold, Most Valuable Player awards and a record 141 consecutive test caps – a feat unlikely to be repeated in modern sport. Those who know the midcourter well speak of her professionalism, her commitment and drive to improve herself both as a netballer and personally.

In search of new horizons to conquer, Langman made the decision to join the NSW Swifts for the 2016 season. She needed an exemption from NNZ to do so, as their rules around national eligibility are clear. To be considered for the Silver Ferns, netballers must play for a national franchise in New Zealand. With approval given, Langman made an immediate impact at the Swifts, being selected as vice-captain for the team and bolstering their roster.

She received as much as she gave, telling the Daily Telegraph, “What I’ve learnt and why I came – from a personal growth perspective, being immersed in such a high performance environment – I’m learning something new every time I step out on court and hopefully that will add something to my game.”

Following the dissolution of the ANZ Championship, Langman then made the heart wrenching decision to be part of Australia’s new Suncorp Super Netball league this year. She signed with the Sunshine Coast Lightning and while she was reunited with coach Noelene Taurua and part of an exciting new venture, it shut the door on her international career. In late 2016, the Silver Ferns took the court, minus Langman, for the first time in 11 years.

Calls from fans for eligibility rules to be altered went unheeded. While NNZ potentially had room to manoeuvre, for example, providing an exemption for players with more than 100 test caps or 10 years of continuous national service, they chose not to relax the rules in Langman’s favour. In the end it was an understandable decision, given the possible implications.

Over the past few years there has been a two-way seepage of players across the Tasman. For every Langman, Price, Tuivati and de Bruin now plying their trade in Australia, there is an Ekenasio, Tairi and Willcox that have gone the opposite way. However, the fanfare around Suncorp Super Netball, with its unlimited imports and promise of being the best domestic competition in the world, made NNZ apprehensive about losing players from their own competition.

The news that golden girl Maria Tutaia was also looking westwards, in a bid to join her Australian fiancé, must have rattled them. Players of such ilk are essential to the success of their ANZ competition, attracting fans and sponsors alike. If Langman was made exempt, similarly capped players such as Tutaia and Ferns’ captain Katrina Grant could also expect similar consideration.

Resultingly, Netball New Zealand remained unmoved. It was a firm but confusing – to fans – departure from previous attempts to bolster their team, attracting Irene van Dyk and Leana de Bruin from South Africa, Villi Davu from Fiji, Sheryl Scanlan from Samoa and a legal battle that raged over Cathrine Latu. NNZ took on the International Netball Federation in an unsuccessful fight that went all the way to the international Court of Arbitration of Sport.

The Silver Ferns continued into the 2017 international season without Langman and struggled with their inexperienced team. Two losses against England and a whitewash by an equally inexperienced Australian team were concerning. In the Constellation Cup series against the Diamonds, margins against New Zealand increased with each game, going from 3 to 8, 12 and 16-goal defeats in consecutive matches. The midcourt particularly struggled, missing the ruthless play, experience and leadership that Langman had previously provided.

Fans looking six months ahead to the Commonwealth Games might be fearing defeat by England in pool play, consigning the Ferns to a bronze medal play off. Any other losses, by the rapidly improving Malawi for example, would push them out of medal contention altogether; both results would be New Zealand’s worst ever return at a Commonwealth Games.

Cries to find a way to reinstate Langman intensified. While the player herself had made the decision to re-join the Lightning in 2018, it was a difficult decision, and she reportedly resigned herself to the possibility of never again wearing the black dress.

One of the strangest aspects of the saga has been the deathly silence in New Zealand sporting circles. While Australian luminaries such as Liz Ellis, Lisa Alexander and Sue Gaudion have been vocal in their calls for Langman’s reinstatement, little has been heard from New Zealand apart from their one official statement.

Current players could be excused from speaking up, for fear of the impact on their careers if they voiced an alternative opinion, but where is the fire from former netball greats, commentators and coaches? In a country passionate about their netball, the silence has been surprising. After Langman’s two-year absence from their shores, is it an issue that has been buried? Do they consider her disloyal and not worth fighting for? Or has there been pressure from the sport’s governing body, Skysport or sponsors not to speak out?

Yesterday, the shock announcement was made that Langman had reconsidered her decision to play for Lightning in 2018, and instead would be taking a leave of absence from netball. She said, “At this point in time I have nothing concrete planned for next year, but I will put more energy into travel, work and family life at home.”

It is still unknown what this means for Langman and Netball New Zealand. According to current rules for Silver Ferns’ eligibility, she must be part of a franchise to be considered for selection. Whether any clubs have the room or salary cap to sign her, and what it means for her international return, have yet to be decided.

So, what has changed Langman’s mind? Given the Silver Ferns’ underwhelming performance across the 2017 season, has there been a behind the scenes approach made to her? Did she think NNZ would relax their stance, and discover that this wasn’t the case? Has the lure of returning to international netball proved greater than her desire to continue playing in Australia?

Little is certain at this stage. What we do know is that Langman has offered a massive olive branch to Netball New Zealand, but still may face at least a year without donning a netball dress, receiving an income or playing the game she has given her adult life to. It’s a massive concession from her, and one that should be given serious consideration in determining her fate.

While it’s obvious to all that Langman’s two-year sojourn in Australia has seen her playing abilities raised to new and greater heights, only she and her family will know what it has cost her personally. Normally a chirpy and happy person, Langman has been visibly emotional and teary in recent interviews.

It must have been a draining period, with an innate struggle between her personal ambitions and dreams, loyalty and friendships and overwhelming pressure to return to New Zealand. She is one of the greatest players of all time, an outstanding role model and deserves all the support that the international netball community can provide her with during these turbulent times. Sunshine Coast Lightning has thrown their arms around their much-loved teammate; it is to be hoped that she will also be embraced further afield.

 

Netball Scoop wish Laura well in the months and years ahead and hope to see her back in the black dress before too long.