It’s hard to describe Noeline Taurua.
At the most elemental level, she’s the 11th Silver Ferns coach, entrusted with guiding them past one of their most demoralising periods in a long and proud netballing history. Speaking to her, she’s part philosopher, part prophet, combining honesty with home spun wisdom.
But to those who know her best, Taurua is revered for her humanity; a rare and uncanny ability to connect to people with warmth and sincerity. While her win-loss ratio will inevitably be judged by the record books, Taurua’s ultimate success will lie within the athletes she mentors.
It was Taurua’s early grounding as a track and field athlete that set the foundation for her later career as a coach. Skills such as running technique and ‘fast feet’ work were transferable to the netball court, but it was the intangibles that were the most valuable for long term success.
Taurua explained, “There is discipline involved, both in preparation and competition. I trained six days a week, which is a hard slog when you’re a teenager, your friends have gone out, and you’re running around a track by yourself. So I learned about the value of hard work and training ethic from the very start.”
Even at that young age Taurua was a people person, and so her sights changed from the loneliness of an individual pursuit to the connection of team sport. A talented goal attack, she received her first call-up to trial with the Silver Ferns when she was 18. It was a rugged experience. Taurua said, “Being so young I was overawed by the whole environment. Being alongside players I’d seen on TV I just wilted and became invisible.”
While she didn’t make the senior team, selectors saw enough in Taurua to include her in the Young Internationals, the equivalent of today’s New Zealand A. She said, “It took me some time to crack the Silver Ferns. When I was 24 I was five months pregnant with my first child and did my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament in the knee). So there I was with my big stomach, my crook leg, and had to make a decision about whether to try and play again.”
The answer was yes, and Taurua threw herself into recovery. 1994 proved to be a year worth celebrating: she had her baby and received an inaugural call up to the national team. While Taurua could play across three positions, she was best known for her skill as a goal attack and play maker. 34 tests, a bronze at the 1995 World Championships and a silver at the 1998 Commonwealth Games followed, and she later formed a lethal combination with Leilani Read in Wellington’s domestic side.
There are few fairy tale finishes in sport, and so it proved for Taurua. In 1999 she was preparing for the next World Championships, to be held in Christchurch, when disaster struck. Taurua ruptured her ACL again, a serious injury which usually requires up to a year of post-surgical rehabilitation. She lost her race against time to be fit and wasn’t named for the team. It was a tough dose of reality.
Taurua explained, “Towards the end of my career I thought I was playing some of my best netball. It was so disappointing not to be able to represent my country, particularly at home, and also to end my international career in that way. Control was completely out of my hands.”
“While that’s how it goes sometimes, I became quite empathetic towards players who are injured, and what they go through physically and emotionally.”
During her playing career, Taurua learned from some of New Zealand’s greatest netball coaches. Waimarama Taumaunu had been her Wellington coach, Lois Muir her regional coach, while Leigh Gibbs and Yvonne Willering developed her at national level. When Taurua joined the Magic in 2000 as a player and assistant coach to Ruth Aitken, the roster was complete.
They taught her valuable lessons about the art and craft of coaching, to which she added her own take on how to successfully manage people. When Aitken left the Magic to coach the Silver Ferns, Taurua stepped into her role as head coach, and hasn’t looked back since.
Titles followed in 2005 and 2006, plus a short stint as assistant coach to the Silver Ferns in 2011. When the Magic captured the 2012 Trans-Tasman title, Taurua became the only New Zealand coach to hoist the trophy in nine years of competition. It came at a heavy cost though, and she broke away from the game for a couple of years.
Taurua explained, “I’d been involved in netball since I was nine years old, going from playing straight into coaching. I got to a stage where we were always in the top four or thereabouts, but couldn’t quite crack the grand final. I think I became so consumed with the results that the way I saw things may not have been positive for everybody.”
“I needed to step away from that. To reflect on whether I wanted to coach, why I wanted to coach, and also to reconnect with myself and most importantly with my family.” She laughed, “It didn’t last too long, and I’ll probably never earn Mother of the Year, but I needed that break.”
While she was away from the court, Taurua realised that being a coach was an integral part of who she was. She said, “I’ve become more confident over time, and understand there’s value in how I coach. From a personal perspective, it’s given me a platform to learn about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, the areas I need to improve on and what I can do about it.”
“The other factor is the opportunity it’s given me to be part of people’s lives. Athletes are people first and foremost, and happy people will make happy players. There are also many life skills that are transferable from sport. Once you understand that, you can transfer those skills and become a better person. So sport can be very positive for all of us, and being able to influence that in some way is very rewarding.”
While Taurua and her players thought she added value to netball, not everyone was as enlightened. She was overlooked for the Silver Ferns head coaching role in 2015, inexplicably not even making the short list. While it was a brutal disappointment, Taurua spent plenty of time stripping back the reasons behind her career choice.
“I learned more about the variables that I want when I coach,” she pointed out. “For example, it makes me happy, I enjoy the strategy, I am part of an organisation that has like-minded people who are open to learning, and I can influence lives. So it’s an environment where we can challenge each other and learn from the experience.”
“I realised that I wasn’t coaching just to become the national coach. That doesn’t make me better as a person or out on court. Once I understood that, I was more at peace with myself.”
Having completed a Masters in Performance Coaching, Taurua added a more scientific approach to her experience and ability, and was quickly snaffled to coach the Southern Steel in 2016. In a one-year stint, she guided them to the top of the New Zealand conference, although the team was defeated in the finals race. It was at that point that another fascinating challenge presented itself.
Australia were starting a new competition, made up of their five existing teams from the TransTasman league, and three expansion teams. Taurua was contacted by the Melbourne Storm, a rugby league franchise who were to be a funding partner and sponsor of the newly established Sunshine Coast Lightning. They wanted her onboard as head coach.
It was perfect timing. After 16 years of coaching in New Zealand, Taurua felt that she was at risk of becoming stagnant and needed a new challenge. She said, “Australia are number one in our sport, and have dominated for a very long time. There’s a reason for that.”
“I relished the opportunity to learn the Australian way and why they are so good. Being immersed in the system, understanding the training techniques, the expectations the athletes have of their day to day performance and the competitiveness they have out on court.”
Taurua was also impressed with the Storm. She found them professional both on and off the court, and valued the opportunity to be associated with them. The final puzzle piece was family oriented. In 16 years, she’d never lived and worked in the same place. Taurua explained, “I’d always travelled. On the Sunshine Coast we have a centralised program where we live and train, and we only leave home for away fixtures.”
“That was a huge bonus for our family, for our children’s education, and for them to experience living among Australians who have such a great attitude to life. I thought it would be a period of wonderful growth for our family.”
Building the club from the ground up was a mammoth task, but Taurua was up to the challenge. She established her roster of ten players, merging talent from Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa. Locals quickly got behind the new club, and they went on to win the inaugural title in 2017, following it up with another success in 2018.
Players such as Geva Mentor, Laura Langman, Steph Wood, Caitlin Bassett, Kelsey Browne and Karla Pretorius were in career best form, showcasing their coach’s ability to get the best out of her playing group.
The results couldn’t be ignored back in New Zealand. The beleaguered Silver Ferns had a string of poor performances, being defeated by Australia and England in international series, and overrun by Malawi and Jamaica at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. When they crashed out of the games without a medal – for the first time ever – Netball New Zealand instigated a wide-ranging review.
Included in the findings was that the incumbent coaches lacked international experience and hadn’t connected with the team. Janine Southby resigned, and it wasn’t until the review was complete that Taurua was shoulder tapped to step into the role as the 11th coach of the Silver Ferns.
Taurua further explained, “By the stage the opportunity was presented to me it was pretty late in the piece, and at the Lightning we were heading towards the finals. It was a delicate time and I wasn’t prepared to compromise that. I was contracted to the Lightning for 2019, and so had to work through a process of whether or not I would also be able to coach the Silver Ferns.”
The first discussion had to be with her family. Combining both jobs would make Taurua time-poor, and it could only happen with the whole-hearted support of those closest to her. She explained, “The biggest compromise was always going to be for my family. They were going to have to be the ones to sacrifice my time, so they had to be happy with that. Once they gave me the go ahead, the rest fell into place.”
“I worked through the remaining issues with the support of the Sunshine Coast Lightning, Netball Australia and Netball New Zealand. What we identified was that the competition schedules were complementary. That was a gift from god, because there were never going to be any clashes. I’m fully committed to both roles.”
One of the resulting compromises was that when Taurua oversees the Lightning in 2019, she won’t be included in any discussions about Australia’s national program. With Steph Wood representing the Diamonds, that role will fall to assistant coach, Kylee Byrne. Taurua is well aware that it will need to be delicately handled, and paid credit where she felt it was due.
“Sunshine Coast Lightning and Netball Australia gain no benefit from my involvement with the Silver Ferns, and yet they were willing to look at how it could work, and put processes and systems in place around that. It’s been a very thorough period of negotiation, and our planning will have to be spot on.”
One of Taurua’s first jobs as Silver Ferns’ coach was to have input into the makeup of the national squad. She’d watched most of New Zealand’s domestic games on the internet and had strong ideas about what was needed from her group. Taurua explained, “I want to play an explosive style of game out on court. To do that you need a certain kind of athlete with the capability of specific movement and repeat efforts.”
“I did work with the selectors in choosing the squad players I thought fitted that picture. However, while I was part of the process, I also needed to rely on the selectors knowing some of the players I was less familiar with, then trying to find the right mix.”
“Between the New Zealand, New Zealand A and Development squads we will have access to about 32 athletes, and we will be keeping a close eye on all of them. There will be room for movement between the groups. I need to look at what we have, and I pretty much know the pieces we need.”
Many fans would prefer to shove the Commonwealth Games result in the back of a cupboard, never to see the light of day again. Taurua, however, is taking the opposite approach. She said that it’s an important part of the learning process. “It is our history, and we have to be able to acknowledge it. We can’t hide from the fact, and we need to make sure that we never get ourselves into that position again.”
“I believe that we have to take two steps backwards, in order to move forwards, and not be afraid of that result. It’s part of our experience now.”
Prior to the recent Quad Series, the Silver Ferns spent just three days in camp, where Taurua said she was amazed by the intent of all the players and support staff. “We want to represent our country with pride, we have a lot of work to do and we have to be smart about it because time isn’t on our side.”
“We will need to be wise and very strategic about what we do, because the World Championships are just nine months away.”
Along with polishing their netball skills, Taurua wants her players to learn about their identity: to understand their influences and passions, why they want to be involved with netball and what they are willing to commit to. She said, “We need to work from within, with everyone valuing what individuals bring to the program. I think that is a good foundation. I know we can play beautiful netball, and I think it won’t be long before we see that again.”
Across the Quad series the Silver Ferns had a first up heavy loss to England, downed South Africa by 24 goals, then had a narrow five goal defeat by Australia. Taurua was candid in assessing where her team needed to improve, noting that they needed more height in the defensive circle and players that weren’t afraid to muscle up to the opposition. Disappointed with the rebounding power of her shooters, she wasn’t afraid to introduce promising youngster Aliyah Dunn to the cauldron of international netball.
One of Taurua’s most important jobs will be renewing confidence in a group that knows it’s underperformed in recent times. While she is quick to point to a lift in training intensity and the leadership of returning players Laura Langman and Casey Kopua as being key to raising morale, Taurua undersells her own role in the process. She’s quick to identify deficits, honest about how to improve, expects a strong work ethic from herself and her players, while building a close rapport with the group.
“Once we have a collective buy in about our overall philosophy, it’s about individuals having confidence in who they are, the skills they’ve been given and how they can play the game,” Taurua said.
“We have to peel some of that back and identify what players’ strengths are, and work to those strengths. It does take time, but that’s the beauty of it, because sometimes you’re not too sure of what’s underneath the layers. But once it’s revealed, it can be magnificent.”
While time is fleeting, Taurua is certain her team will be capable of winning gold at the 2019 Netball World Cup. She explained, “We have the intent of being better, of working for and with each other. We will keep stripping it back with every training session and game and trying to find ourselves.”
Given how far the Ferns have fallen and the improvement of other netballing nations, rebuilding will be a formidable task. However, if there is one person up to the job, it’s Noeline Taurua. Take her speech that was featured some time ago on Tūhoronuku, a Maori website for the Ngāpuhi community.
Taurua said, “The answers always lie within. It is the brave who are willing to look there, act on what they find, gain the experience and wisdom, and become true leaders who will ultimately provide the answers and solutions.”
With insights like that from their coach, who could doubt that better times lie ahead for the Silver Ferns.