Salute to a coach
Is Ruth Aitken the best coach the New Zealand netball team has ever had? Aitken, who is stepping down after the forthcoming test series against Australia, has been at the helm 10 years. She has won one world title and been runner-up twice, and has won two Commonwealth Games gold medals, and been runner-up once.
I take more notice of netball at the Commonwealth Games than of most other sports because – unlike gymnastics, swimming, weightlifting, boxing, archery and so on – it is a virtual world championship.
Only Lois Muir, who guided the national team from 1974 to 1988, jostles with Aitken on the top rung of the New Zealand netball coaching ladder.
Muir had one disastrous world tournament, in 1975, was runner-up in another, in 1983, shared a world title, in 1979, and won one outright, in 1987.
I tend to start this discussion with Muir because before her time the New Zealand team played so infrequently. For example, Taini Jamison of Rotorua coached New Zealand to the world title in 1967 and to runner-up in 1971.
She was obviously a coach much admired by her players, and in 1967, with talent such as Joan Harnett, Judy Blair, Tilly Vercoe and Billie Irwin in her ranks, she built a fine team. But between world tournaments her team almost never played.
Muir improved as a coach as she learned to place more responsibility on her players.
This came to fruition in Glasgow in 1987, when Leigh Gibbs, Tracey Fear, Margaret Forsyth and others fairly much took over the training and Muir fine-tuned tactics. The result: a world title won without any team getting within 10 goals.
Another tribute to Muir is that so many of her players, including Lyn Gunson ( Parker), Yvonne Willering, Gibbs, Wai Taumaunu, Ruth Fathers (Aitken), Rita Fatialofa and Marghie Matenga went on to become influential coaches at international level.
Aitken has coached during an era in which netball has gone semi-professional. The demands on her have been greater, but she has never showed any sign of stress.
Her predecessors, Gunson, Gibbs and Willering, had plenty of netball knowledge, but also obvious weaknesses.
Aitken, by contrast, has had most bases covered. Her willingness to call on others for help and lack of obvious ego have been assets.
After a slightly dodgy start, when her players asked her to take more command, she has been in control, but in an understated manner. She’s not someone who stalks up and down a sideline during a game, or allows her players to see her in moments of despair.
She hasn’t won everything – who could with Australian netball so strong? However, she has ushered in an era in which the Silver Ferns take the court genuinely knowing they can beat major rivals Australia. After the bleak ‘‘silver syndrome’’ days of the 1990s, that’s been a blessed relief.
If her successor, who at this stage looks likely to be Taumaunu, is as successful and handles her responsibilities (including the media) as well, New Zealand netball will indeed be fortunate.