Cover image: Skhu Nkomphela
The South African Proteas are the second team to call on a reserve, after Lenize Potgieter was ruled out of the Netball World Cup yesterday. Played for the first time in Africa, it was a heart-wrenching blow for the star shooter and her team.
Speaking exclusively to Netball Scoop, coach Norma Plummer explained the loss. “She’s been carrying one knee injury for a long time. She couldn’t play Commonwealth Games but it was SASCOC (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee) who ruled her out, not us – they didn’t pass her on medical grounds.
“She was able to play in this tournament because her knee was being managed, but it wasn’t that one she injured, it was the other one.”
Potgieter didn’t take to the court during Rounds 1 and 2, but played 45 minutes during the Proteas match against Jamaica. The following morning, her knee was swollen and painful, and an immediate MRI confirmed the bad news.
Plummer said, “A fragment of cartilage had broken itself off and hooked in behind the knee. She can’t straighten her knee at the moment. Our team doctor is very good, and surgery has already been arranged.”
Following surgery, Potgieter will start her rehabilitation, marry in September, and take time to consider what her playing future looks like.
“She is so passionate, and has been a sensational player for South Africa,” Plummer said. “She’s been sobbing, she loves her game.”
Potgieter had made a strong return to the court, shooting 17 goals at 100% accuracy across three quarters, and pulling in two rebounds. The Proteas still have a strong post option in Ine-Mari Venter, but Potgieter’s substitute is far less experienced. The 21 year old Owethu Ngubane has just one national cap, but at 181 cm is a more like-for-like shooting replacement than Lefebre Rademan, who is 8cm shorter.
Plummer, who together with assistant coach Nicole Cusack, has a long standing association with Netball South Africa, had ‘retired’ from her duties several years ago. However, several months after their disappointing 6th placed finish at last year’s Commonwealth Games, the pair was asked to take over management of the team again.
It gave the experienced coaches limited time to pull a team together. Plummer said, “I did think about it because I’m not getting any younger, but then I thought I may as well. I can finish off in my heart, that I’ve looked after them and done all I can.
“No doubt they’ll have some retirements at the end of the year, and they’ve been a fantastic group of players. They’ve worked their hearts out, and thrive on any feedback.”
Presiding over the Proteas 2015 and 2019 World Cup campaigns, Plummer has been instrumental in the rise of South African netball over recent years. Along with other initiatives, she pushed for the Proteas inclusion in the Quad Series, played with Australia, England and New Zealand.
“We needed more exposure than just playing against other African nations. So yes, we were going to get beaten by those other three nations, but it’s the only way to learn about the rigours of international netball.”
From losses as big as 30 to 50 goals, the Proteas have progressed to the point where they’ve downed England on several occasions, drawn a match with New Zealand, and fallen just two goals short of Australia – which was Plummer’s personal highlight.
“I’ve always loved the development of the game,” explained Plummer, “and working with players and just seeing them come up. Over the time I’ve been with them, it was such a great journey. We dropped the scorelines and those changes started to come the third season in. It does need to be continuous though, as competitiveness does start to drop away fairly quickly.”
With the World Cup being played in South Africa for the first time, Plummer has been careful to shield her players from the massive weight of expectations. “We’ve tried to keep it down. We have trained hard, but we haven’t talked, ‘World Cup, World Cup, World Cup!
“I’ve tried to suppress them having to do everything, but rather given them days when they are available for publicity purposes. It can be over-awing otherwise and we do need to keep a lid on it.”
While South Africa has built a team around their handful of stars in recent years, Plummer has said there’s an enormous pool of talent in the country that with coaching and exposure to competition, could see them challenge current world standings.
“Players like Jeante Strydom, Elmere van der Berg, Nicola Smith, Nichole Taljaard and Owethu Ngubane, to name a few, we can’t put wise heads on them overnight, but they have so much potential. There’s a couple more we couldn’t fit into the team, but will really step up in the future. We want to take them on the ride with us.”
Plummer has been particularly impressed by Strydom’s application. Not selected for the national Under 21s, Strydom moved to Queensland to work on her game, before Covid saw her opportunities crumble. “The fact that she took the initiative to do that, to play in Australia. I just thought, ‘Wow, she’s really done the hard yards.’
“If you could have seen her face when I announced she was now a fully fledged Protea squad member and not just an invitee. Other players can also see the process of how a player can work her way into the squad.”
Plummer has always believed that the World Cup should be restructured, with a top eight and a bottom eight that play each other once, an elevation/relegation process, and finals. It would ensure matches would be far more competitive and all teams in the pool would meet each other at least once.
“I don’t think we are a sport that can have such blowouts as 60, 70 goal margins, when we could have such a showcase of close games, more sponsorship. Those scorelines really hold back our progress.”
However, even if those changes were to go ahead, Plummer is adamant this is her last major tournament as head coach.
“I guess Nic (Cusack) could push me on court in my wheelchair at the next World Cup,” she joked, “but it won’t be happening.”