The enduring power of netball’s Big V

Home: Madi Robinson (left, versus Abbey McCulloch) is back with the Vixens Photo: Grant Treeby Home: Madi Robinson (left, versus Abbey McCulloch) is back with the Vixens Photo: Grant Treeby

Home: Madi Robinson (left, versus Abbey McCulloch) is back with the Vixens Photo: Grant Treeby

Home: Madi Robinson (left, versus Abbey McCulloch) is back with the Vixens Photo: Grant Treeby

From the backline, as Jack Dyer might have said: Sharni Layton, Julie Corletto, Amy Steel, Renae Hallinan, Caitlyn Nevins, Caitlin Thwaites, Erin Hoare. All but two have played for Australia and all are ex-Vixens, Victorian natives who have sought non-Melbourne netball pastures, and are thus playing at ANZ Championship level elsewhere.

Add in multi-club Bendigo-raised former Kestrel Bec Bulley, and the Fever’s Shae Brown, both of whom missed out on the inaugural Vixens squad back in 2008, plus current Swifts bench player Micaela Wilson, and there are almost more products of the successful local development system playing away than remain at home.

Times have changed, certainly, since the humbler decade of the Australian domestic league, where Vixens coach Simone McKinnis ended her celebrated playing career in 1998.

“It was a big deal then if somebody was going to another state to play, but it is common now, and it’s about players going to where they’re going to find the best opportunity,” says McKinnis, noting the fierce competition for places in just five Australian teams, compared with the eight former Commonwealth Bank Trophy franchises. “That means you may have to go interstate, and obviously there’s the support now for players to move; whether it be [help with] work or that sort of thing, there is the financial support to do that.”

The issue, of course, is that so many talented hopefuls into 12 Vixens spots is an impossible equation, meaning that not only are the reigning premiers unbeaten three rounds into their title defence, they – like the NSW Swifts – are also a particularly rich provider of personnel for rival clubs. In contrast to the Swifts, however, they are also committed to allocating 10 of their 12 spots to Victorian pathway graduates, leaving one for an import (at present England’s Geva Mentor), and no more than one interstater (last year Cath Cox, this time Carla Dziwoki).

A Vixen who left and returned is superstar wing attack Madi Robinson, lured to Perth for a place in the Fever’s starting seven by her former Melbourne Kestrels coach Jane Searle in 2009, coaxed back to her original club two years later, and now one of the best players in the world.

“It was the second year of the ANZ Championship; we hadn’t really seen a lot of player movement before then, so it was a bit of ‘oh, my goodness, what am I doing, is this the right option?’ ” Geelong-raised Robinson recalls of her shift west. “But hopefully it’s a decision like that from myself that has allowed other players to look further if they believe they can play at that level and they want to really pursue their goals and dreams. There’s opportunities out there, you’ve just got to try to find them.”

On her travels, Robinson also discovered just how superior the facilities and resources are in Melbourne than in so many other places, recalling how the Fever players did not even have access to a weights room, and had to share a gym with the Western Force. At the Vixens’ base, the VIS, there is every support imaginable, human and otherwise. Most netballers may be only part-timers, but this is a professional operation in every sense.

Robinson believes the fact that 10 of the Vixens’ 12 “are all born and bred Victorians” who have come up through the system – through junior representative teams to State League and the ANL – not only contributes to the strong club culture, but also helps inspire those who will follow. “The young girls and supporters that come along can say ‘wow, they played at the same association that I do’.”

For Commonwealth Games gold medallist Caitlin Thwaites, that was Bendigo. The goal shooter was a Victorian 21-and-under teammate of Robinson, Julie Corletto, Renae Hallinan et al in 2007 and a Vixens premiership player in 2009, who spent three seasons in Wellington with the Pulse before returning to Australia – and the Swifts – in 2014 to press for Glasgow selection. Successfully.

Thwaites considers herself loyal, and always imagined she would be a one-club player, but believes that species of netballer is becoming more endangered by progress. “That’s just more about netball becoming more professional, and the fact that we don’t have an AFL draft or anything like that where you’re ranked and get called into whatever club wants you – we’re actually lucky in that we’ve still got a choice in where we want to go,” says Thwaites, one of five former Vixens among the Swifts’ 12.

“I think the netball landscape has changed in the last little while, and people are trying to find somewhere where a coach really believes in you and you’re going to be getting the best out of your netball. Sometimes sitting behind someone at a certain club and waiting for them to retire might not be the smartest thing to do, so you have to go somewhere else.”

And so they have, so many of them, with former Vixens bench duo Steel and Nevins (nee Strachan) the latest to leave in search of playing minutes, and rewarded with substantial court-time at the Thunderbirds and Firebirds respectively in the first three rounds. “Unfortunately there’s only 12 spots, and they’re really competitive, and it shows how much depth we’ve had when you see the calibre of the players playing interstate,” Robinson says.

“But it doesn’t matter where they’re playing, as long as they’re playing. It’s great to see them out there, and I think it’s fantastic for the Victorian juniors coming through that there’s a lot of opportunity to play elite netball, even though we might not be able to fit them all in at the Vixens.”

Not coincidentally, semi-professionalism means there is also far more money than in the old CBT years. Robinson recalled that the $1500 per season she was paid in her time at the Kestrels did not even cover the cost of commuting from Geelong six days a week. To which McKinnis, an all-time great who also spent years on that same stretch of Princes Highway, responds drily: “She got $1500 more than me, then.”

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