Coaches Norma Plummer and Nicole Cusack are the driving forces behind an invigorated netball program in South Africa. In the Quad Series earlier this year, they lost to Australia by just four goals, while their margin against New Zealand and England was only five. It felt like a big win was just around the corner. Heading into the Commonwealth Games their high hopes were shattered after injuries to three key personnel. Despite that, they finished in fifth place, recording the same loss margin to Australia that Jamaica did. It was a result to be proud of.

Norma’s involvement with South Africa started back in 2011, shortly after she finished coaching the Australian Diamonds. She’d moved to West Coast Fever, but still managed to run a short camp for Netball South Africa (NSA) before their Six Nations Tournament. She said, “As soon as they realised I was finished with Fever they rang me. It was January of 2015, and I went over and met their squad and ran sessions for two weeks. I went home and thought that was it.”

NSA liked what she did, and reached out again in June, asking her to coach the team to the World Championships. It was a big challenge. “Well, it was only five weeks out!” said Norma. “But I thought about it, and said to them that the deal for me would be that I’d need my own assistant coach. There wasn’t time to develop a coach, and Nic (Cusack) had always been with me, right from my time with the Australian team.”

South African coaching bench, Norma Plummer far right. Photo: Simon LeonardGames against other African nations followed, with the Proteas claiming two victories over Malawi, who’d held the upper hand for a few years. Norma said, “Netball South Africa were pretty pleased about that situation. We then had to pick a team to go to World Championships and didn’t have much time with the players. I said to the hierarchy that I felt I could help them improve, as they’d dropped down the rankings. We ended taking fifth at the World Championships.”

Early days with the team were a huge learning curve. The players were keen to learn but took some time to develop. Norma laughed, “I remember my first session with Karla Pretorius. The very first game I gave her direction about how to sit on a player and what I wanted her to do. At the end of the first quarter she came off and hadn’t done any of it. I said, ‘Well that’s interesting – I gave you a direction and you never did one thing I asked. It’s the second quarter, I’ll repeat what I want you to do, otherwise you can sit on the bench. It’s about having that discipline – this is what you have to do. We need to take this girl and quieten her down.’ She got best on court that day.”

Karla Pretorius gets some serious air. Photo: Marcela Massey

“So after that they are started to believe in themselves. I’ve been very strict on taking a team approach to a game plan, rather than having seven individuals playing their own game. Now they don’t query that. They have the right to come up and talk about anything though, and we have great discussions. So many of them have said, ‘I wish I knew this ten years ago.’”

“It’s about providing them with the technical and the tactical. Anyone can run a drill. But the drills must transfer onto the court. We set up scenarios that they’re going to be under, like overloading defence by putting an extra defender in the attacking end, getting them to stop tunnel vision. Trying to make them more aware of things. After all these years, I’ve found that you learn by repetition. You can’t give a session on one thing, and not keep repeating it. It doesn’t sink in that quickly. You have to build their confidence on knowing when and when not to do something. When to pass that long ball, that type of thing.”

After the World Championships, South Africa had to choose between continuing to play against other African countries in the Diamond Challenge, or taking part in a Quad series. The latter was to be part of an annual tournament playing against Australia, New Zealand and England – with South Africa very much a small minnow against the sharks. Norma was adamant about her preference. “I said to them that the South African players had to learn intensity. We could play every team ranked under us and win (in the Diamond Challenge), or we could go out and get hit by the stronger teams (Quad Series). But what we want to achieve is score lines. If we lower the scorelines, you can see we’re improving, and that we’re getting there.”

Inspirational captain, Bongiwe Msomi. Photo: Simon Leonard.

“In saying all that, we found it tough. In the early days we were beaten by some huge margins.”

Norma was apprehensive coming into the most recent series in January this year.

“I hadn’t seen the team since September, as unfortunately a November camp was cancelled. So Nic and I went back in on the 10th of January. We had a day and half to pick the team, three days together, then jumped on the plane to England. A couple of training sessions there and then we were to play Australia. I was amazed we only went down by four goals. Then we only went down to England and New Zealand by five goals.”

“So the players know that they can compete, but we need the depth in the team to swap it up, and that’s what we’re lacking at this point in time.”

The team approached the Commonwealth Games knowing, for the first time ever, that they could match it with the best countries in the world. Self-belief was high until they were rocked by a series of disasters.

On arriving in Australia they learned that their gun goal shooter Lenise Potgeiter, one of the best in the world, was more seriously injured than expected. On the second day, a defender contracted a virus and was quarantined for a week. Day four, their other shooter, Danelle Lochner went down in almost a carbon copy of Potgeiter’s ankle injury. On day six, a player learned of the death of one of her immediate family members.

It was a series of cruel blows that left the team vulnerable. Norma related, “It really knocked the girls around. We talked about it, and injuries are part of sport. We said that we can’t afford to drop our heads if we want to make something of ourselves going forwards. But Lenise in particular was such a major part of our team; she’s a lovely girl, friends with everyone, and they were in tears for her. But we’ve got a lot of heart, and we will never stop trying.”

Shadine van der Merwe was rock solid replacing Mthembu at WD. Photo: Marcela Massey

Two replacements, Renske Stoltz and Siggy Burger, were flown to Australia. They had just a day of training before competition started, and had never faced the might of teams such as Australia before. Norma said, “That put us under enormous pressure, and there is a lot of learning to do. We’ve been pushing up hill for a while, but it shows the character of the girls.”

There was still a core of experienced players – Maryka Holtzhausen (GA), captain Bongiwe Msomi (WA), Erin Burger (C), Precious Mthembu (WD), Karla Pretorius (GD) and Phumza Maweni (GK), who held the team together. Their style and game plan had to change, adjusting to two new and inexperienced shooters. With a win and a loss to their name, injuries then went from bad to worse when Mthembu suffered a serious knee injury and was ruled out of the rest of the tournament.

Phumza Maweni talks to the media. Photo: Simon Leonard.

The players regrouped, and went on to finish fifth in the Games. In the finals they beat a Ugandan team that was brimming with confidence, and a rising force in world netball. It was a brilliant effort, but for many, it was also a case of what might have been.

The future looks bright for South African netball, with up and coming players such as Shadine van der Merwe, Izette Griesel, Zanele Vimbela, Siggy Burger and Ine-Mari Venter all receiving plenty of court time. The latter two look promising in the circle. They stand 195 and 192 centimetres respectively, and have shot at high accuracy across the tournament.

Ine-Mari Venter, strong under the post. Photo: Marcela Massey

While Norma has instilled self-belief into her players, she still needs a greater pool of players to draw from.

“I just tell them that they can do it. ‘You are as good as this athlete you are going up against. Just because it’s Australia, doesn’t mean you can’t beat an athlete.’ Each one of our girls can individually can match other players. But it’s having the depth which we don’t have.”

There are multiple plans in place to help netball grow in South Africa. They have more players than ever before competing in the stronger Australian, New Zealand and English domestic leagues. This has been made easier by changes to rules around national eligibility. In previous years they’d lost stars Irene van Dyk and Leana de Bruin, both competing for South Africa one year, and New Zealand the next. A mandatory stand down period now means players are more reluctant to change countries.

Norma related, “Our players need international competition to help them play to a better standard and a higher intensity. What we’ve been trying to do is show that our players are good, and hopefully the scouts ring me and ask if they can take a player. Netball South Africa were nervous at the start because of the situation with Irene and Leana, but I’ve assured them that it can’t happen like that anymore – you can’t swap countries so easily now because you have to wait eight years.”

The ever reliable Erin Burger. Photo: Marcela Massey

There are hopefully changes on the home front too. South Africa’s domestic league, the Brutal Fruit competition, currently only goes for six rounds.

“In my opinion that competition has to be two full rounds and finals. So hopefully they’re working towards that. It is a major issue, because the players aren’t getting enough matches with intensity and competition. The only way you are going to learn is by being thrown into it.”

Theoretically retired, Norma is currently working for South Africa on a handshake deal, travelling back and forward between there and Australia. She said, “If it doesn’t suit either one of us, we have an out. But I love coaching, and retirement isn’t for me. I’ve been asked to go through to the 2019 World Championships, and hopefully that will happen.”

She’s excited by the campaign ahead, the possibilities that might occur with another year of experience and hopefully a few less injuries. Whatever the result however, she’s a contented woman doing a meaningful job.

“I get such a kick out of coaching these players from where they started, training them up so they can handle it, seeing them on the court producing it. It’s wonderful seeing that happen, because you know you’re making an impact, you know you’re getting the job done.”

“Coaching in general is my life. I hope that over the years that a lot of players have learned something from me, even if it’s only one thing. I love to see the end result of a player becoming better.”

Photo: Simon Leonard