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Ian Harkin
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Linda Pearce
The Sunday Age

Despite all her bad luck, a retiring Liz Boniello is grateful for the opportunities she’s had, writes Linda Pearce.

IN a drawer in Shepparton lies a scrapbook that chronicles a sporting life through more than a decade of media ink. The brilliant schoolgirl athlete. The junior Australian netball captain touted as a future senior leader. The long-term goal defence in the national team. Or so it seemed.

But then the tragedies, a series of them. Beyond the two serious knee injuries that ruined the first dreams of Commonwealth Games and world championships; and far more than the selection injustices that, four years later, buried both ambitions for all time. The accidental death of a sister, in 1997; of a father, last year, through illness; and, on the eve of her planned wedding day, of a fiance’s sister, who suffered a brain aneurism while buying flowers for the bride and groom.

Liz Boniello, formerly Taverner, has flicked through the cuttings, compiled and kept by her mother, and says that what she has read has “broken her heart”. The experience is made stranger still by the realisation that the person she is reading about is herself.

“It’s been a sort of surreal way of looking at my life, looking through the scrapbook and I suppose achieving so much,” said Boniello. “(Reading) articles of being in the Aussie team with some legends of the game that played during that era, and having the opportunity to be interviewed for the vice-captaincy and really being in just a fantastic position in my sporting career, and then all the downs that followed. The ups and downs.”

And now, in Friday’s national league grand final against the Swifts in Sydney, the end of it all. After 89 national league games for the Melbourne Phoenix, as a key member of at least three premiership teams, perhaps four. After 12 Tests for Australia, but never at a major championship. Aged 31, after one of her best individual seasons she is a wife whose next plan is to become a mother.

Boniello still loves the game as much as ever, and hates to think how she will feel when it’s over. Nor does she want a big send-off, or any fuss. Her impending retirement – “the r-word”, as coach Lisa Alexander calls it – has not been discussed openly by the Phoenix, although its coming is no secret. In this interview, the club’s popular co-captain was unusually reticent, having made a conscious decision to go quietly and fearing the distractions that may still intrude.

“My plans for next year just haven’t been spoken about within our team,” she said, carefully. Certainly the girls are aware of it, but I just haven’t wanted to make a big hoo-ha about it. A few years ago, (Thunderbird) Sarah Sutter was retiring for six months of that season, and it just went on forever, and I know even her teammates were laughing about it, saying, `Oh, Sutts, when are you going to retire?’ I just didn’t want to be in that position, or put that pressure and expectation on everyone else around me.”

Boniello prefers to talk about what lies further ahead, and recently had a quiet word with her friend and protege Bianca Chatfield, the national under-21 captain tipped to return to the senior team under new coach Norma Plummer. Boniello has already told Plummer how much she would like to be 25 again, starting over under her old mentor, and hopes fate is kinder to Chatfield, her so-called “little sister” in the defensive circle.

“I gave B a lecture the other day, saying, Now B, just don’t think you’re going to be in the Australian team for the next 10 years, just appreciate every single game when you get back in again because it doesn’t last forever’,” Boniello said. “Five or six years ago, I just thought I was going to be in the Australian team for the next five or six years and that didn’t work out the way I’d planned.”

Selection disappointments of the past two years have hurt immensely. So devastated was Boniello to miss the 2002 Commonwealth Games that it almost destroyed her season. She was more prepared to be overlooked for this year’s world titles and, while handling it far better the second time around, was scarcely less disappointed. “Last year, I really struggled confidence-wise and I suppose I never got back,” Boniello said. “I only ended up playing reasonable netball once the Commonwealth Games were finished, and of course during that time, my dad passed away as well.

“The past couple of years have been really difficult being a (national) squad member and wanting to go to that next level, and my two outstanding goals in netball were the Commonwealth Games and the world championships. But the time’s right to move on to other things. If I hung around next year, who’s to say I’d get selected under Norma? Anyway, it’s not what I want to do. There’s young players that they need to develop.”

Boniello is grateful for the opportunities she has had, and honoured to have represented her country, conscious that all she has missed has sharpened her appreciation for what she has had. Her game has also benefited, according to Alexander, for certainly Liz has had a lot of life-changing things that have happened to her and she has a lot of time to reflect on that, and as a person and player she’s grown so much”.

“She just gets out there and she knows that every game counts. She just wants to put everything into every game, and she prepares herself better than anybody.” This week, she will do so for one last time, before the focus shifts to the family she hopes to start with Tony, a former Canberra Cannons guard and her husband of almost three years. Coaching does not appeal, but Boniello may draw on what she calls her disappointments in life, and disappointments in selections”, to assume a player welfare role.

Which for now leaves one of the game’s most respected players, and one of its unluckiest, trying in vain to describe her own career in 50 words or less. “Ooooh, up and down, there’s three words,” she said. “I’ve given everything a go, I suppose. I’ve had some really great times and have such great memories and there’s been some real down-and-out times as well.

“When I look back, it brings a smile to my face, and the standout thing is the friendships that you make along the way and that you keep forever. For me, it just means so much. The good times that we had just override everything else that happens along the way.”

Sydney Swifts v Melbourne Phoenix
8pm on Friday, 12 September, at the SuperDome, Sydney
TV: ABC, Saturday, 13 September, 4-5pm (replay).

CROWD: More than 8000 tickets have been sold. The SuperDome capacity is 20,000 and organisers hope to trump the 10,000 at the 1991 world championship final between Australia and New Zealand.