Why Coach Noeline Taurua Is The Taskmaster The Silver Ferns Need

Viva spoke to Noeline last year, a few days before the newly appointed coach named her squad for next week's Northern Quad series

Noeline Taurua. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Noeline Taurua took on the highest profile job in women’s sport in New Zealand less than five months ago, bringing an uncompromising approach and an intriguing mix of high-performance knowledge and gut intuition to the hard ask of turning round the national netball team’s horror run in time for next year’s world championships.

On the team bench she displays her emotion. A steely gaze alternates with the odd eye roll or delighted clap. In person, there’s that same direct look, mixed with wry chuckles and a level of self-belief won from years of top-level coaching. Out of her black sports gear, the lithe 50-year-old is a vibrant presence. Like the nippy former international player she was, she seems coiled for the next move. Players won’t die wondering what “Noels” thinks of them. But if they do the work and buy into a culture of excellence and tenaciousness, she’s convinced the talent is there and the rewards can come. The Ferns must push on, put the past in context and gain resilience from it.

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After all, it’s what she did herself. Taurua, daughter of the late Ngapuhi leader Kingi Taurua, has the fighting spirit. She also has a deep love of netball and remembers both her mother and her grandmother playing the game, as do her children now. “It’s irrelevant what level you play to, like all sports it strengthens communities, it helps to build character and personalities of individuals and it provides identity as well.”

When she was snubbed from even the shortlist for the Silver Ferns role three years ago, Taurua rebounded spectacularly. Back-to-back Australian titles with the start-up Sunshine Coast Lightning team made her case to lead the Ferns undeniable. She came armed with a Masters degree in sports performance, inside knowledge of how the formidable Aussies tick, the charisma to recruit back star players while developing new ones to ensure internal competition.

Sporting-wise 2018 was deservedly the Black Ferns year, but with women’s rugby having but a fraction of the player base of netball, it is the Silver Ferns — like the All Blacks — who are never short of armchair critics. Taurua has been heartened by the support she has enjoyed within the netball community and wider public, but she knows that as an elite coach she needs to deliver. “There’s expectation and so there should be — we’re the best in our country.” Contesting international finals is what she will ultimately be judged on. She’s excited by the challenge that the World Netball Championship will bring in July, 2019.

After that family priorities will decide her next move. Her four youngest of five children are at school in Queensland, where she has a contract for a third year at the Lightning, juggling that role in the months ahead with steering the Ferns. She hasn’t made any commitments beyond 2019. The game and her reputation are always on the line. For the players, however, she says it is the journey and attitude that will ultimately define them. “I don’t want any what ifs. I don’t want to be saying the same things that everybody knew from the start. I really want to show in some degree that we’ve moved or improved. What’s the result, that will speak for itself… we’ve got to take ownership of it.”

Viva spoke to Taurua last year, a few days before she named her squad for next week's Northern Quad series, dropping former captain Katrina Rore (nee Grant) and saying the line-up heading to Liverpool was still fluid.

Taurua has an impressive resume, with years of top-level coaching under her belt. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

If that sounds like chancing the mix with not much time to get combinations sorted, Taurua doesn’t demure. “We could peak a little bit faster,” she guffawed during the Viva interview. “You can’t come from zero to hero all in the one swoop and we’ve got to accept where we are and we’ve got to be prepared to work.”

Internal competition is a big part of her strategy to melding the toughest team possible for the World Champs. Fight and fitness, she says is the difference between elite sides winning and losing. And any resultant gold medals are more reward for effort than crowning glory. “The excitement and where the gold medal is — it’s in the journey — it’s not at the end and it’s also how we come together as a team.”

Make no mistake, however, results matter. “If I didn’t believe it or that wasn’t my intention being the head coach of a New Zealand side then I shouldn’t be there. I’m here to win the gold. For that to happen, we’ve got a lot of steps that need to happen.”

The time-frame isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t faze her. Just three years ago she concluded that “her face didn’t fit” with Netball New Zealand. Now she’s calling the shots. “It’s funny how things happen and come around, I do feel I’ve got an easier road coming in [now]. Since missing out on the job in 2015, I spent time down in Invercargill and absolutely loved that and then my experience in Sunshine Coast in the Australian system and with the people from Melbourne Storm who are our main funders and the University it’s been amazing.”

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It’s also armed her with the credentials and confidence to speak out in a way her predecessor Janine Southby wasn’t able, or inclined to. Taurua is a proven title winner. She’s attracted Laura Langman and Casey Kopua back to black and Netball New Zealand has done an about face in granting Maria Folau — unlike Langman before her — a dispensation to play in the Australian competition while remaining eligible for national honours. Harnessing their experience while also trying out new talent is all about being in the best position to “have a crack.”

“I find it quite exciting where we’re currently at, obviously we’ve been at the bottom and we all know — whether it’s the general public, or the netball community and the players and people involved — what that feels like. I love the challenge and the fight that needs to happen for us to be once again be at the top of our game.”

Players wearing the black dress with pride is a given, of course, but so too for her that they come out the other side as better and more resilient people. Her benchmark is both holistic and fatalistic. “We’ve set our vision and values and we know exactly what that is and the competencies around that and we’ve got to live to that. If we can, at the end, say we’ve lived to everything and we’ve done the best that we can, then so be it.”

Here’s her answers on how she intends turning the Ferns into real winners again:

So how do you build team culture?
I have a perception of what I feel needs to happen, but I try to understand the context and the people that are involved and the history -- and then look for the gaps. I have a very clear understanding of what is required for performance. But at the end it’s about people and how to either cut down the barriers, their understanding of where they feel they are at, and then provide a vision moving forward. People want to belong and to be heard and to contribute to a bigger purpose. And that’s probably what I mean when I talk about culture.

If players don’t want to hear what you have to say, that they’re not fit enough for instance, how do you get that message through?
We’re an elite sport and part of elite sport — or the landscape as I always say — is about being the best we possibly can. We represent New Zealand and there’s an expectation that goes along with that. If we worked at Bunnings our landscape would be different. If we were social netballers it would be different. There’s expectation and so there should be — we’re the best in our country.

With the gap having closed internationally, does the public have to accept that New Zealand won’t always be 1st or 2nd or does the team have to take it up a level?
I always feel, whether it’s philosophical or not, that it was unexpected for us the results that happened in Comm Games [in 2017]. Where other teams had shifted quite fast, we hadn’t and also we were exposed to some degree… probably lack of performance at the standards or levels that we had been in the past. So in terms of cycle there’s room for improvement. What’s happened in the past is part of our history and identity now, and it should be something that we have to take the positives out of it.

Does your track record give you a buffer zone of more time to get it right and how long is that?
I’m not sure I can put years or numbers on that. For instance, it’s probably taken me 10 years to really understand my own coaching philosophy and where it sat properly or where I was confident. That was more about myself and being authentic and not being the stereotype of what people perceive coaches to be. So I’ve gotten more comfortable in that. Now I have an understanding, through the environments that I’ve been, as to the variables to create success.

How do you sum up your coaching philosophy?
My philosophy has always been about people working with people. Finding their strengths, enhancing their strengths or giving them an environment where they can express themselves and moulding that together. At the end we’ve got to perform, one and off the court, we represent people or a community and we’re very lucky we can use netball to express ourselves.

Do you think beyond the performance?
Yes, yes, at the end there’s only a small window where players have the opportunity to be a Silver Fern -- if you get to be a Silver Fern. Some get cut short because they don’t make it, they’re not selected or they have injury. It’s a very select group and they should be very grateful for the times, but there’s a lot that happens before and after it. We’re very lucky to be involved in this group and so we’ve got to learn all those other skills and take the opportunity that’s presented in this environment to help us be better people after netball. That’s really important. Whether you make the Silver Ferns or not — or whether we win the gold medal or we don’t — that doesn’t define us as people. At the end, there’s one team who’s going to win and one team that’s going to lose. It’s just how it is, so it’s got to be bigger than that.

Coach Noeline Taurua during the Netball International Quad Series between New Zealand Silver Ferns and Australia at Hisense Arena Melbourne Australia. Sunday 23rd September 2018. Photo / Photosport

What do you expect a Silver Fern ideally to be or to give back?
I think this an area where we can improve on… you’re in the public eye. First thing is about performance, you should always be putting the best performance out there, no matter what. You should be training at a higher level, both on and off the court. The standards that you set should inspire others that you are amongst. You should always wear the Fern with pride and show that to others as well. You’re also in a position of influence: in pathways for other netballers or in the messages that you give out in media.

What has having been a Silver Fern brought to your coaching?
It’s not a be-all and end-all, because obviously there’s some fantastic coaches around that haven’t had the privilege of representing your country, but I understand what they [the players] may be feeling and what they’re going through and what they may be thinking. I can use that to influence and to help my decisions.

Has coaching in Australia changed your view of how we approach the game here?
I went over there to learn basically, to learn from the Australians why they’re so good and to understand their systems and their processes and their training ethic. When I did come back in September or October [2018], we had our first training for the quad [series] and it was amazing. In Aussie they’re very clinical, very one dimensional because that’s how they’ve always trained, so they’re very repetitive in their coaching ways and methods; whereas here it reminded me of the New Zealand way — the flair and the creativity, those ball skills, and it was a beautiful reminder for me. So if I can take just the fitness stuff, or some aspects of it, of the Australian way, the discipline, the tenaciousness and put that into the New Zealand style then I think that’s a nice mix and we don’t have to change who we are. You’ve got to have a pattern, you’ve got to have repetition training, you’ve got to have science, you know you’ve got to know when is the right time to do certain things and be disciplined about it and that’s probably an area that we don’t.

Those cross-code and high-performance connections you’ve had in Australia, are they something the New Zealand game would benefit from more of?
Yeah, definitely. With the [Lightning backers, ARL club] Melbourne Storm they’re a successful organisation in their own right and have been for many years, so consistency in performance that’s the expectation. When I went there that was expected of me, and I knew I had two years to get a premiership or that was it. I love that challenge, but also what comes with that, the access to the systems and people over there. We’re also with the University of Sunshine Coast, so we’re based there and their sports science area has probably increased my knowledge of high performance sport. But it’s also highlighted my own philosophies, how they have a place in terms of intuition and about people as well. Being involved with the university it’s not only about the sports science, but about social science as well; social identity and knowing that there’s actually stuff out there like that and it makes sense and it transfers into sport.

So how do the pathways compare between there and here, in terms of seeing a broad range of players?
Pathways are pretty staunch over there, you don’t go from one level to another unless you meet the criteria, a lot of its based around measurements, tangibles, which is why they’re very fit because that’s how they measure everything. You would never, very rare, get players coming straight out of school and going into the top level. You can get away with talent so long, but you’ve got to able to put the hard work in. Here you have a lot [of players] that come through with sheer talent. Australia they’ve got the hard work. There comes a time when you need the hard work from the sheer talent. You know, otherwise…

Does netball here need to harden up then?
There’s always that thing about us hardening up and it’s been a consistent message, but I know a few Aussies and they always go New Zealanders shouldn’t pretend to be somebody else. If I look at us as a community or as a nation, we’re not that type of people, we’re pretty relaxed, we go with the flow… unless we’re pushed or really at that sort of level of aggression then we don’t naturally go there. I don’t think that we’re [the Ferns] any different from a lot of people in the community, we’re a reflection of our own environment. But when it comes down to it, once again, we’ve got be able to perform and we’ve got to be able to do whatever it takes to perform at that standard and we need to have success. I still believe we can do that with a flair and the creativity that we play out on court, but there’s definitely areas we need to improve on so we can enter into that space being physically and mentally prepared and to be very competitive against each other. That internal competition is really important to raise the standards.

How do you achieve that development in the New Zealand environment?
The players are in the ANZ competition a lot of the time, six or seven months, and that’s where their growth and development is, where they learn. This year, I was trying to build the relationships or strengthen them with the franchises, involving the franchise coaches more than in the past, right from when I first came in and dispersed them through other international games: NZAs, Fast Five, so they get an understanding of the international environment, but also to strengthen that relationship. That’s a key to our success, what happens in the ANZ.

Is there that buy in for change?
Right from day one I’ve been with the coaches, people in general, with the players’ their attention has been amazing, their focus, their openness to be better, their willingness to be better and know that since the Comm Games we haven’t been able to produce the goods. The collective buy-in has made my job easier, I’m not having to sell it so much. Because we can keep doing what we are doing and get the same results or we can look at something different and I think that everybody is open to that and that’s probably been the most refreshing thing.

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